San Francisco 49ers: St. Louis Rams

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

May, 29, 2014
May 29
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By almost everyone’s estimation, the rough and rugged NFC West was the best division in the NFL in 2013. It had the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, two teams in the NFC Championship Game (Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers) and another 10-game winner in the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Rams were 7-9 but likely would have had a winning season in any other division.

And now? Other than adding Godzilla and three superheroes to the four teams, they could not get much better. It looks like the big boys on the NFC block will remain out west.

Most experts believe the Rams had one of the best drafts in the NFL, adding Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, giving St. Louis four first-round picks on what is arguably the best defensive line in football.

The 49ers had 12 draft picks, including seven in the first four rounds, and made a trade during the draft for talented Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson.

The Cardinals signed gigantic left tackle Jared Veldheer and blazing kick returner Ted Ginn in free agency. They also added a vicious hitter, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, with their first draft pick.

As always happens with Super Bowl champs, the Seahawks lost a few key players to free agency, but they kept the man they really wanted to keep in defensive end Michael Bennett and locked up "Legion of Boom" stars Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term deals.

Believe it or not, the best division in the NFL just got better.

First Down

As usual, the Seahawks drafted some players other teams would have taken later, if at all. Should people question their choices, or have they earned the benefit of the doubt?



Terry Blount: Have we learned nothing from the past? Questioning Seattle's draft strategy, along with undrafted signees, now seems a little foolish. Shall I name a few who stand out that other teams passed up or the experts questioned? Sherman, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Malcolm Smith, for starters. The Seahawks bring in players with specific traits -- unusual athleticism, driving competitiveness and obvious intelligence. Where those players rank on another team's draft board means nothing to them. And at first glance from rookie camp, they found some winners in receivers Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood, along with defensive end Cassius Marsh.

Nick Wagoner: At this point, it's hard to argue with the results the Seahawks are getting from the players they draft. It is interesting that it seems like the first-round picks (such as James Carpenter and Bruce Irvin) are the ones who seem to struggle most relative to draft position. But the thing Seattle does so well is find players who fit the confines of who they want to be on both sides of the ball. Then they develop them and have them ready to go. It is why they never seem to miss a beat when injuries hit or a player is suspended. The results speak for themselves.

Josh Weinfuss: A little leeway should be given to the Seahawks because, first, they are the reigning NFL champions, and second, their personnel department has been able to piece together a pretty good roster with players who were not highly rated. With that being said, good will should only go so far. Sometimes a general manager and coach think they have the secret recipe and get cocky about their ability to find talent. When that happens, bad decisions are made. Obviously, the Seahawks have a reputation for picking good players, but they won't be right every time. Every team has an off draft and picks who don't pan out. It is also too early for us to know if some of their "rogue" picks will do anything. Their picks should definitely be questioned until they have a chance to show us their stuff.

Bill Williamson: The glue to the Seahawks is general manager John Schneider. Yes, coach Pete Carroll is a tremendous fit for the franchise and is a big part of the team's success. But Schneider is the architect of this franchise. He built this roster. There is little doubting the way he has drafted. Look at the core of the team -- they were all great value choices by Schneider. The tie goes to Schneider. You can doubt him if you choose, but it would be a lousy idea. Expect these Seattle rookies to develop into players. Schneider always wins.


Second Down

Do the additions of Johnson and Carlos Hyde give the 49ers the most dangerous offense in the division?



Blount: Both players will help, but the real key for the 49ers is quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Having enough weapons wasn't really the problem. Using them effectively on a consistent basis and cutting down on mistakes is the issue. Kaepernick's extraordinary talent is unquestioned. But can he be the same type of team leader that Wilson is and make the big play in the most difficult moments? He couldn't do it last year in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. If he shows he can do that consistently when the big game is on the line, watch out.

Wagoner: Well, the competition for that crown isn't exactly daunting in a division known mostly for grinding it out offensively and dominating defensively. But the 49ers probably do have the most dangerous offense in the division. I don't personally think Johnson or Hyde will be a major difference-maker right away, but they don't have to be. Putting Johnson with a healthy Michael Crabtree at receiver and tight end Vernon Davis should allow Johnson to operate free of the pressure of being a No. 1 wideout. Hyde can learn from Frank Gore before taking over the reins. In terms of top-to-bottom talent across the roster, yes, the 49ers look to have the most dangerous offense in the NFC West.

Weinfuss: It is certainly looking like the 49ers have one of the most dangerous offenses in the division, if not the most dangerous. San Francisco has the right pieces at every position, from quarterback to running back to wide receiver to tight end. But the first question that came to mind when going through San Francisco's offensive depth chart is this: Will one football be enough to go around? This might turn into a case of the 49ers being better on paper than they are on the field, which has happened many times throughout the NFL. The Cardinals bolstered their skill positions during the offseason, giving themselves a lot of talent at wide receiver and tight end to complement two young running backs and a veteran quarterback who finds ways to win. A team can have all the ammunition in the world, but if the coach doesn't know how to use it, it will be stockpiled for naught.

Williamson: I think so. There is nothing missing from this offense. We saw how dynamic it can be when Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles last December. Put Crabtree, the clutch Anquan Boldin and Johnson together and that is a great veteran group of receivers. Someone is always going to be open. Rookie Bruce Ellington was added to give the 49ers the ability to take the top off of defenses, an aspect they didn't possess last season. We didn't even mention Davis at tight end. Really, how is this offense going to be stopped? Kaepernick looked like a completely different quarterback when Crabtree played last season. Kaepernick with all of these weapons? Oh, and we didn't even mention the bread and butter of the 49ers' offense -- the running game. Hyde, Gore and a healthy Marcus Lattimore? How do you defend this group?


Third Down

After a narrow miss last season, have the Cardinals made enough of the right moves to get into the playoffs?



Blount: I don't think they needed to make many moves to reach the playoffs. Record-wise, they were a playoff team last season, but a victim of circumstances in the playoff structure. So the real question is can the Cardinals catch Seattle and/or San Francisco? And my answer is yes, especially the 49ers. Quarterback Carson Palmer will be better after having a full season in the Arizona offense. Bruce Arians might be the most underrated coach in the NFL. The team clearly is on the rise, while San Francisco's offseason turmoil could come back to bite it.

Wagoner: I like what Arizona did this offseason. The offensive line should be much better with the addition of Veldheer and the return of Jonathan Cooper. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie was a nice pickup, and first-round safety Bucannon should be a good complement to the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu. But it is still going to be difficult for them to make the playoffs. The Seahawks and 49ers remain at the top of the heap, and until we see otherwise, it's hard to see how they fall from that perch unless injuries strike. That would still leave one playoff spot for the Cardinals. Three teams from the same division can make the playoffs, and it just happened last season, but I expect Arizona to take a small step back and just miss the cut again.

Weinfuss: The Cardinals have made enough moves to make the playoffs this season. They missed the postseason a year ago by a game, which might have been different if Arizona had been stocked with a better kick returner, left tackle, second cornerback and safety. The Cards addressed those issues in the offseason, which should make them better in 2014. Adding left tackle Veldheer to anchor the offensive line should ease Arians' concerns about Palmer's blind side. One thing Ginn has shown throughout his career is that he can return kicks with the best. But the biggest difference for the Cards will be their improved secondary. Signing talented veteran Cromartie gives the Cardinals two lockdown cornerbacks (along with Patrick Peterson) and drafting Bucannon gave Arizona an instant upgrade against tight ends and big receivers -- which there are plenty of in NFC West.

Williamson: I really like how well the Cardinals are coached. I think Arians is on to something. His players seem to respond to him. So the program will continue to rise under Arians. Also, I love the defense; it is nasty, aggressive and ball-hawking. Add great defense and a well-respected coaching staff and a team is going to win a lot of games. I think the bottom line with the Cardinals is quarterback play. Palmer had his moments last season, but I'm not a big believer in him. I think he will cost the Cardinals at some point. Maybe this is a playoff team, but I think the Cardinals are a couple of steps behind the Seahawks and the 49ers. The deficit starts at quarterback.


Fourth Down

The Rams decided not to draft help at wide receiver and waited until the sixth round to add a young quarterback. Will their offense score enough to make up ground in the NFC West?



Blount: Sure, it would have helped to add a top receiver, but is there a bigger unknown in the entire division than Sam Bradford? What the Rams, and everyone else, have to find out is whether Bradford is an elite quarterback. Frankly, I have my doubts, but he did play well last season before his injury. Bradford's situation is much different than that of Kaepernick, who is as gifted a player physically as you will ever see. In Bradford's case, it's hard to know how good he really is or can be, because he hasn't had top talent around him. And it doesn't help that he has to play six games against three of the of the best defenses in the NFL. It's time for Bradford to step up, no matter whom he is throwing the ball to each week.

Wagoner: The Rams are clearly hoping they will be able to win games in classic heavyweight slugfests by playing good defense and running the ball. The Rams did put up points against playoff teams like New Orleans and Indianapolis without Bradford, and most of the same cast of characters returns this season. The question is if they can score enough to overcome teams following a similar blueprint within the division? Adding Robinson and running back Tre Mason and having a full season of Rodger Saffold at guard should certainly help the run game. But until one or more of the young receivers proves himself and Bradford can consistently take advantage of play-action opportunities down the field, I don't see the offense being able to do enough to win games without the help of a special-teams or defensive score from week to week. The Rams should be better against division foes than they were a year ago and might be able to push Arizona, but it still seems unlikely it will be enough to overtake Seattle or San Francisco.

Weinfuss: The depth of the NFC West makes this the toughest question of the four. The Rams' additions weren't significant improvements to their offense, but will help. Bradford will come back with a vengeance and try to light up the scoreboard. He will have a talented group of receivers, but can they score enough to close the gap from the bottom of the West? Not sure that can happen. Rookie Robinson will take his lumps and bruises and might not come into his own until the second half of the season, so the Rams have to be hoping it's not too late by then. Points will be at a premium in the West, especially considering how good the three other defenses are, so the Rams will have to be even better than expected to make up ground, and I'm not sure they are ready for that just yet.

Williamson: Points scored? Who needs points with that defense. Man, the Rams' defense is getting silly good. Adding Donald to that defensive front should have been banned. It's simply unfair. The Rams are not going to allow many points this season. So the offense won't have to be overly dynamic. With that said, I am not a big Bradford fan. I don't think he is the answer. Until the Rams upgrade at quarterback, I don't think they will reach their full potential or be able to hang in the division race. But they will dangerous every week because of the defense.

 

Top free-agent roundup: NFC West

March, 10, 2014
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This division was toughest in football last season, yielding three double-digit-win teams and the Super Bowl champion. It is no surprise some serious free-agent talent will come out of the NFC West. Here are the top 15 free agents, as ranked by ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount, Rams reporter Nick Wagoner, Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson.

Bennett
1. Michael Bennett, Seattle DE: He was a free-agent bargain last year. That won’t be the case this year.

2. Karlos Dansby, Arizona LB: He is 32, and that could scare teams, but he can still dominate.

3. Donte Whitner, San Francisco S: The 49ers could have some big competition, but Whitner is a strong defender they want back.

4. Brandon Browner, Seattle, CB: Even though he is facing a four-game suspension, Browner should get attention. Great talent and size. he may be worth the risk.

5. Golden Tate, Seattle WR: Tate might not be a numbers monster, but he has big potential.

6. Rodger Saffold, St. Louis OG: The Rams' biggest free-agent priority has proved capable of being a Pro Bowl-caliber guard when given the chance.

7. Clinton McDonald, Seattle DT: A solid plugger on a great defense. He will get interest.

8. Tarell Brown, San Francisco CB: Solid performer who could get looks as a No. 2 cornerback.

9. Walter Thurmond, Seattle CB: He isn’t as known as one of the Seahawks’ top cornerbacks, but he played big. He could be looking at nice payday.

10. Andre Roberts, Arizona WR: He quietly had a nice season in 2013, with 43 catches. He could attract solid interest.

11. Breno Giacomini, Seattle OG: A solid offensive lineman whom the Seahawks want back.

12. Shelley Smith, St. Louis OG: Started just two games in 2013 but flashed starter potential when given the chance.

13. Steven Hauschka, Seattle K: A standout kicker whom the Seahawks want back.

14. Phil Dawson, San Francisco K: The 49ers badly want this guy to return. He saved many games last season.

15. Eric Winston, Arizona OT: He’s not what he used but is still solid. The Cardinals want him back.

 

Double Coverage: Rams at 49ers

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
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Clemens-KaepernickGetty ImagesKellen Clemens and Colin Kaepernick both know limiting mistakes will be key on Sunday.
The San Francisco 49ers had their way with the St. Louis Rams in Week 4, winning 35-11 on the road.

However, the 49ers aren’t looking back at that game as much as they are recalling their 2012 series with St. Louis. The Rams beat the 49ers in St. Louis and the two teams tied in San Francisco last season.

ESPN.com St. Louis Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson discuss what to expect in this meeting.

Wagoner: After destroying the Rams the first time out, the Niners seemed to get on a roll but have had some struggles, too. By this point in the season, do you have a good feel for who this team is?

Williamson: I really don’t see the 49ers as just a difficult-to-read team. They are a strong team. I know a lot was made of their recent two-game skid. But the 49ers lost to Carolina and New Orleans by a total of four points. The 49ers literally were one play away from winning both of those games. Yes, the 49ers are 7-4 and they are not perfect, but this is still an upper-level team. Nick, do you get the sense the Rams are confident going into this game?

Wagoner: They have plenty of reasons to be after blowout wins against legitimate, albeit injured, playoff contenders in Indianapolis and Chicago. The Rams' first meeting with the Niners was something of a wake-up call for them and they have mostly been trending in a positive direction since despite some close losses along the way. They have discovered an offensive identity and the defense has been playing better. Although the Niners blew them out in the first meeting, the Rams also have fond memories of how they competed with them last year. I would expect them to go in believing fully they can win this game.

Receiver Michael Crabtree appears to be heading toward a return. Do you expect to see him on Sunday? How much has his absence hurt the team?

Williamson: He is now active. Of course, the big question is if he will play Sunday. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has indicated Crabtree will play. I truly don’t expect him to play much. He is still working his way back from a torn Achilles he suffered in May. He is not 100 percent. He should improve steadily, but it may be a mistake to think Crabtree will be ready to make a huge impact Sunday. But there is no doubt the 49ers miss him and need him back. Nick, do you think the Rams are preparing for a big dose of Crabtree?

Wagoner: I think the Rams' primary concern as it pertains to Crabtree right now is making sure they have the healthy and productive bodies they need in the secondary. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson is dealing with a concussion and they recently placed Cortland Finnegan on injured reserve with an eye injury. The Rams have struggled with elite receivers this year so if Crabtree didn't play much, that would be a good thing for them, especially given the success Anquan Boldin had in the first meeting. The Rams are also working with rookie safety T.J. McDonald to knock the rust off after he returned from a broken leg suffered in the first game between the teams. The Rams have lots of questions in the secondary right now so every little bit helps.

Falling in line with that, how do you evaluate Colin Kaepernick's second season as a starter? Are the issues he's had common growing pains or are they things that will be difficult for him to improve as he moves forward?

Williamson: There’s no doubt Kaepernick has struggled some this season. But I think a lot of it has been a lack of receiving weapons. Kaepernick will be fine once he gets a full complement of receivers. He can make every throw and he plays well within the 49ers’ system. The coaches are pleased and see limitless potential. But he does have to improve in reading defenses and working on his progressions. But, overall, he’s far from a liability. Nick, the Rams’ defense has been good; do you think it can cause Kaepernick into making enough mistakes for St. Louis to stay in this game?

Wagoner: Well, that's precisely what they are going to have to do to stay in the game. The defense has played much better in recent weeks, I believe in no small part as a response to the loss of quarterback Sam Bradford, but also a more aggressive approach to defense in general. The defensive line is the strength of this team and it has been on fire here lately. Robert Quinn might be the best defensive player in the league and Chris Long is playing well opposite him. The key, though, will be for the good version of the Rams' unpredictable run defense to show up. They have been up and down but when they are good and they force opponents into third-and-long, the defensive line feasts. To me, it all starts there, then they can do their thing against Kaepernick.

Live blog: 49ers at Rams

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for the divisional match up of the San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Rams.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8:30 p.m. ET. See you there.

Double Coverage: 49ers at Rams

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
12:00
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Colin Kaepernick and James LaurinaitisGetty ImagesThe 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Rams' James Laurinaitis will try to help their respective squads avoid a 1-3 start.
No NFL division rivals were more evenly matched than the St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers in 2012. It took almost 10 full quarters to determine a winner after the teams tied in San Francisco and went late into overtime in the meeting in St. Louis.

The Rams and 49ers renew acquaintances in front of a national audience at 8:25 p.m. ET Thursday night at the Edward Jones Dome. ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson kick around some important topics heading into the game in this edition of Double Coverage.

Wagoner: These two teams couldn’t possibly have played a pair of closer games in one season than they did last year. That came as something of a surprise given the way San Francisco was bullying opponents from week to week. Somehow, the Rams seemed to have the 49ers' number last year. How much does that bother 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh & Co. entering this one?

Williamson: I am sure the 49ers are not thrilled to be playing at St. Louis on a short week right now. Times are tough in San Francisco. They are under .500 and have lost two games in a row for the first time under Jim Harbaugh. They are having issues on both sides of the ball, dealing with Aldon Smith going to rehab and experiencing many injuries. To top it all off, the Rams, as you said, had success against the 49ers last year when they were playing at a high level. I think the 49ers are focusing this week on getting themselves fixed and not worrying about their recent past with the Rams. But if the Rams strike first, it could get in the 49ers’ heads.

Wagoner: Well, on the bright side for San Francisco, the Rams are going through some troubles of their own after getting decimated in Dallas last weekend. That the Rams are 1-2 at this point isn’t a huge surprise, but the way the Cowboys manhandled them has caused some to push the panic button already. Playing a division rival at home on short rest should serve as a quick way to snap out of whatever funk it was that plagued them in Dallas. On the flip side of that equation, it also doesn’t provide much time to fix all the problems that have been evident not just against the Cowboys but in the first three weeks as a whole.

You mention the loss of Aldon Smith; how does that affect the Niners on the field and perhaps in the locker room?

Williamson: Moving forward, I think the biggest effect is on the field. The team has had time to allow this to hit them. If anything, it might have been a distraction Sunday against the Colts. Now, they are worried about being without Smith on the field. He has 37 sacks since he came into the league in 2011, the most in the NFL during that span. The 49ers are going to use rookie Corey Lemonier, a third-round pick, and Dan Skuta, mostly a special-teamer, in Smith's absence. The 49ers’ entire defense is going to have to respond well as it begins to play without Smith. Suffice to say, it won’t be easy.

Wagoner: The 49ers playing without Smith bodes well for the Rams given the fact that he’s had so much success against them in previous meetings. Smith had five sacks in four games against the Rams, so his absence is a good thing for an offensive line that gave up six sacks last week in Dallas. Before that game, the Rams had a four-game streak dating to last season of not allowing a sack, but it appeared to be a bit of smoke and mirrors this season given the Rams’ penchant for short passes and not having faced a team with a top pass-rusher. Perhaps more important for the Rams’ offensive line this week will be establishing the line of scrimmage and trying to get the running game going. It’s an area where the Rams have yet to show much life but one they’ll absolutely need against the 49ers.

Speaking of areas that haven’t revved up yet, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick isn't off to the best start. What have you seen from him so far and what type of changes (if any) have the 49ers made schematically since last year?

Williamson: It’s weird, Nick. Kaepernick was brilliant -- basically flawless -- against the Packers in Week 1. But he has really struggled in the past two games as the 49ers have scored a combined 10 points. Frankly, this offense has been incapable of playing winning football the past two weeks. But it’s not all on Kaepernick. The receivers (other than Anquan Boldin) have not gotten open and the offensive line, which has been great in the past, has slid back. Kaepernick seems flustered. He has to rise above it and become the leader. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of the read-option (it has been used sparingly this season) against the Rams to give the offense a spark.

Wagoner: That’s an interesting thought given the Rams’ relative success against the read-option last year. The Rams seemed to be on to the basic keys to slowing it down and that played a big part in their win against the 49ers in St. Louis. They had it defended well enough to score a game-changing touchdown on a missed pitch late in that one. One thing that could play in San Francisco’s favor is the knee injury to defensive end William Hayes. It’s unlikely Hayes will play this week and he’s the best the Rams have at setting the edge and blowing up run plays. That’s a big loss for the Rams going into this one.

#NFLRank: A full NFC West accounting

August, 31, 2013
8/31/13
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Fifteen San Francisco 49ers and 13 Seattle Seahawks helped the NFC West account for a disproportionate number of players listed in the #NFLRank project from ESPN.

Sixty-three voters helped rank 100 top players on each side of the ball. NFC West teams accounted for 20 players on defense and 16 on offense. The 36-player total works out to 18 percent representation for the NFC West, above the 12.5 percent expectation for any division.

The chart shows where NFC West players ranked on each list. I shaded offensive players in gray to better distinguish the rankings.

The 49ers' Patrick Willis and the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald have long been perceived as the best players in the division. They've got additional competition, but those two ranked higher than anyone else in the NFC West.

There were sure to be oversights in a project of this scope. Defensive end Calais Campbell of the Cardinals stands out to me as the most glaring one. I might have placed him between Patrick Peterson and Chris Long in defensive rankings as they stood for this project.

Three Seahawks cornerbacks earned spots on the list even though one of them, Antoine Winfield, reportedly could be released by the team Saturday in the reduction to 53 players Saturday.

A quick look at ranked players by team:

San Francisco 49ers: Patrick Willis (3), Aldon Smith (10), Justin Smith (11), Vernon Davis (18), NaVorro Bowman (18), Joe Staley (25), Mike Iupati (32), Frank Gore (37), Colin Kaepernick (42), Ahmad Brooks (56), Anthony Davis (60), Donte Whitner (64), Michael Crabtree (78), Anquan Boldin (83) and Jonathan Goodwin (92).

Seattle Seahawks: Richard Sherman (8), Earl Thomas (17), Percy Harvin (26), Marshawn Lynch (27), Brandon Browner (46), Russell Wilson (47), Russell Okung (49), Kam Chancellor (49), Max Unger (57), Bobby Wagner (67), Winfield (70), Cliff Avril (74) and Chris Clemons (85).

St. Louis Rams: Long (40), James Laurinaitis (57), Jake Long (61), Cortland Finnegan (63).

Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald (7), Patrick Peterson (19), Daryl Washington (59) and Darnell Dockett (79).

Final 2013 preseason QB snap counts

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
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Six projected starting quarterbacks played in their teams' final exhibition games of the 2013 preseason. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick were two of them, and both led touchdown drives before exiting after one series. None of the NFL's projected starters got hurt Thursday night.

The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.

"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."

Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.

The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.

#NFLrank: 49ers' late push on way

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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The San Francisco 49ers trail the Seattle Seahawks by one in the final quarter.

They are in good position to prevail, however.

Vernon Davis, NaVorro Bowman, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis stand tallest among the as-yet-revealed players in the #NFLrank project highlighting 100 top players on each side of the ball. Seattle's Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman remain leading candidates to appear as the project continues.

Sixty-three voters ranked players for the project. The chart highlights 49ers among the players ranking 21st through 100th on offense or defense. We'll learn the 20 highest-ranked players on each side of the ball over the next couple days.

The 49ers have placed 10 players on the list so far. The Seahawks have placed 11, the St. Louis Rams four and the Arizona Cardinals two.

San Francisco's total includes eight players on offense and two on defense. Seattle's breakdown is more evenly distributed: six on defense, five on offense. But with top 49ers defenders such as Bowman, Willis and the two Smiths still unranked, the numbers should even out some for the 49ers.

Note that quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson both fell in the 40s. Both were ascending late last season. Both have a chance to climb further this season.

About the team-by-team NFL predictions

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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You might have noticed the NFL team-by-team predictions with won-lost records posted to the new team sites and to the divisional blogs Wednesday morning.

You can find those team sites here: Arizona, St. Louis, San Francisco and Seattle.

In the past, I would have handled predictions for all NFC West teams. We now have reporters in place to cover each team, with only a few teams unmanned as the final hires are made. Each team's reporter filed his own prediction for the team in question without regard for how other reporters might view things.

For example, Minnesota Vikings reporter Ben Goessling predicted an 8-8 record and second-place finish for the Vikings, while Chicago Bears reporter Michael C. Wright predicted a 9-7 record and second-place finish for the Bears. Those predictions would be exclusive if viewed together. However, they were made independently.

Here in the NFC West, Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount predicted a 12-4 record and first-place divisional finish for Seattle. I am handling the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals predictions for the time being. I predicted 10-6 for the 49ers without knowing Terry was predicting 12-4 for Seattle.

My feel is that Seattle and San Francisco will be in that 10-11 range for victories and that the healthier team will probably prevail as the division winner unless one of the other teams is better than anticipated. I'm leaning toward Seattle as the top team, but it's a tough call -- a lot tougher than the two-game gap between my prediction and Terry's prediction might make things appear from afar.
The NFC West complied with the 75-man roster limit Tuesday by releasing some players and placing others on various reserve lists.

The chart shows how many players each team from the division is carrying by position. Note that figures for defensive lineman and linebacker can be tricky, so a generic "front seven" figure could be more relevant in some cases.

One observation per team:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Injury concerns have led the Cardinals to carry additional players at tight end. Starter Rob Housler suffered a high-ankle sprain and might not be ready for the opener. Veteran Jeff King has not yet played during preseason. The team added Richard Quinn as short-term insurance. Housler and King both passed physicals and have practiced during camp, making them ineligible for the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Both are expected back sooner than PUP rules would allow, anyway. For now, though, their injuries are creating roster challenges. Guard Jonathan Cooper is also ineligible for PUP. He could go on the injured reserve list with a designation for return later in the season.
  • San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have 10 wide receivers on their 75-man roster, tied for most in the NFL even after placing Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham on the PUP list. Four or five of their remaining cuts figure to come at that position. The 49ers' wide receivers are the oldest in the NFL by average age thanks to Anquan Boldin (32) and Kassim Osgood (33). If Osgood sticks on the 53-man roster, special-teams contributions will explain why. Boldin, Jon Baldwin, Kyle Williams, Quinton Patton and Marlon Moore would be by picks if the team kept five.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Defensive end Chris Clemons remained on the roster instead of shifting to the reserve/PUP list, another indication the team thinks he could return from knee surgery sooner rather than later. The PUP designation would allow Clemons to resume practicing between Oct. 15 and Nov. 19, but all signs point to Clemons being ready before that. Seattle needs him, too. Bruce Irvin faces a four-game suspension. Cliff Avril has a hamstring injury that could affect his availability for the opener. Keeping Clemons in play for Week 1 makes sense as long as there's a chance he could be ready by then.
  • St. Louis Rams: The Rams are a little heavy at tight end while Cory Harkey recovers from injury and Lance Kendricks gets back to full speed following knee surgery. The Rams' roster appears pretty normal overall. The decisions looming appear straightforward. That could change as the team continues to build its depth.
A potential competition for the San Francisco 49ers' No. 2 quarterback job might have dissipated before it really began.

Colt McCoy is the guy behind the No. 1 guy, coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters Sunday night following a 34-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park.

A chronology provides some context:

March 12: The trade sending backup Alex Smith to Kansas City becomes official.

April 2: The 49ers acquire McCoy to be their presumed No. 2 quarterback.

Aug. 8 and 16: McCoy performs unconvincingly in the 49ers' first two exhibition games.

Aug. 22: The 49ers sign free-agent quarterback Seneca Wallace.

Aug. 24: McCoy accepts a reduced salary. The news comes out a day later, at which point McCoy confirms that he accepted the reduction on Saturday night, the 24th.

Aug. 25: McCoy completes 11 of 15 passes for 109 yards and an interception during the 49ers' preseason game against Minnesota. Wallace hardly plays. After the game, Harbaugh tells reporters he "feels real good about Colt as the backup quarterback."

The timeline suggests Wallace's signing helped the 49ers secure a pay reduction from McCoy while providing insurance. That may or may not be the case. We know Colin Kaepernick is the starter and McCoy is the heavy favorite to serve in the No. 2 role, and that Wallace could have some additional time to learn the offense -- perhaps so the 49ers could turn to him later if a need arose.

Teams have until Tuesday to reduce their rosters from the 90-man limit to no more than 75 players. The mandatory reduction to 53-man limits is Saturday.

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