Commentary

No weak link in NFC West

Williams hire shows Rams are upping the ante; expect Cardinals to follow suit

Originally Published: February 24, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The recent reports that Jim Harbaugh was pursued by the Cleveland Browns officially kicks off another offseason of intrigue for the NFC West.

The rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks escalated over the past few years, but especially throughout last offseason. Move by move, the teams tried to outdo each other. Harbaugh traded for Anquan Boldin. The Seahawks tried to top that by trading for Percy Harvin. The battle continued throughout the offseason into the regular season.

Here's the difference this year: The NFC West is no longer just a two-team rivalry. All four teams are in the race. If you had any questions about this being a four-way battle, look at Rams coach Jeff Fisher's hiring of Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator. Though his reputation was tarnished with the bounty scandal in New Orleans, Williams is respected for the results he has gotten over the years. Fisher is a master of preparing defenses, but Williams' strength is adding toughness.

Coaches from Arizona, Seattle and Francisco all understand the potential impact of Williams. The Rams are well-coached with Fisher at the helm. The Rams have already shown how well they match up against the Seahawks and 49ers. Williams will toughen up the defense along with improving the play of the cornerbacks.

Then there are the Arizona Cardinals. Bruce Arians has reshaped the atmosphere in Arizona. He brought in a simpler offense that runs well with Carson Palmer at quarterback. The understated part of the Cardinals is their defense. Under coordinator Todd Bowles, the Cardinals fly to the ball and make plenty of big plays.

Watch how the Cardinals and Rams escalate their offseason acquisitions to challenge the 49ers and Seahawks.

Let's get back to Harbaugh for a second. The reported strain of the coach's relationship with the organization comes down to one fact: The 49ers' organization is mandating a Super Bowl ring the same way it did in the old days under owner Eddie DeBartolo and coach Bill Walsh. Walsh, a Hall of Fame coach, established one of the great football dynasties, but even he knew his job was annually in jeopardy unless he kept winning Super Bowls.

Harbaugh has been to three straight NFC title games and has been to one Super Bowl. He's entering the fourth year of a five-year contract. What's becoming clear is that ownership isn't going to make him the highest-paid coach in the league until he delivers a Super Bowl to San Francisco. What I can see happening after the 2014 season is the 49ers offering him a short-term contract extension that would take him above $8 million a year -- if he wins a Super Bowl. Harbaugh might take offense to an incentive-based deal with his recent track record of success.

Whether it's the Harbaugh story, the Seahawks' efforts to repeat as Super Bowl champions or the rise of the Cardinals and Rams, the NFC West will dominate the headlines this season.

From the inbox

[+] EnlargeNate Garner and Mike Pouncey
Charles Trainor Jr./Getty ImagesThe Dolphins would be wise to leave Mike Pouncey, No. 51, at center.

Q: I am a lifelong Dolphins fan, and this year I think they should draft the very best center at No. 19. I believe Mike Pouncey's athleticism is more valuable as a guard/pulling guard than it is as a center. He also struggles consistently with the bigger nose tackles in the league. Due to the depth of this year's draft class, I think they could address left tackle in the subsequent rounds and then look to fill the right tackle through free agency. What are your thoughts on this idea?

Keith in Yakima, Wash.

A: Pouncey is one of the best centers in the NFL. I don't think the Dolphins should mess with that with all the rebuilding they have to do. It's hard to justify taking a guard at No. 19 because of the value unless he's a surefire, multiyear Pro Bowler who can be a difference maker along the offensive line. No doubt, the Dolphins have to look heavily in the draft and free agency to rebuild that line. John Jerry, Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito aren't going to be back with the team. Rebuilding that line is going to be one of the biggest challenges for any team in the offseason.

Q: I have heard several sources declare that Jimmy Graham and Dennis Pitta should appeal their designations as franchise tag tight ends if their teams choose to go that route with their contracts. The argument is largely based on the similarity of what they do on the field compared to wide receivers and the higher monetary value associated with the other position. What's your take on this?

Derek in Baltimore

A: The problem is the difference between the cap numbers of a franchise receiver versus a franchise tight end. A receiver gets an $11.5 million tender compared to $6.7 million for a tight end. This is a monetary equation, not a subjective evaluation. Pitta and Graham contend they lined up more than 50 percent of the plays in wide receiver slots as opposed to tight end slots. It's all about leverage. Each side is trying to get the leverage in negotiations to get the better deal. It might seem unfair to those who don't think versatile tight ends are getting a fair shake, but that's the way the system is structured.

Q: I have an interesting proposal regarding the makeover of the PAT. How about kicking the PAT from where the touchdown resulted? So, if a team scores on a 5-yard run, then the PAT is kicked at the 5. If the team scores on a 24-yard pass, then the PAT is kicked from the 24. If the touchdown is scored from the opponent's 35-yard line or farther out, the PAT is kicked from the 35-yard line. The scoring team could also still opt for the two-point play at the 2-yard line. This new PAT rule would reward teams that drive the ball deep into the opponent's territory and would make it more difficult to get the PAT on a lucky, longer play. Think of the strategy on a wet and windy day? Go for a 52-yard extra point or go for two points?

Eric in Albuquerque, N.M.

A: That sounds pretty complicated, but I guess if there is going to be change, why not make it a little crazy? I'm still of the school that says don't change the system. There is nothing wrong with the extra-point conversion. Sure, it's automatic. Very few kicks are going to be missed. You can go through an entire season and see only five extra points that fail. But why create plays that could take points off the board? Being at the combine, it appears the competition committee has the same opinion. There doesn't seem to be enough support for radical change and the elimination of the extra point.

Q: Could you see NFL teams start to look at more game-manager QBs, instead of high-priced, top-of-the-line QBs? It seems to me once a QB wins the Super Bowl or goes deep into the playoffs, his team pays him top dollar (Eli, Rodgers, Flacco, Brees, Ryan) After they get their money the rest of the team, for the most part, is decimated because it doesn't have enough money to go around. And teams like the 49ers, Seahawks, Panthers, Colts end up going further and knocking those other teams out? I know elite QBs are the biggest things to NFL teams, but should they be?

Patrick in Blue Point, N.Y.

A: You can't underpay and undervalue the quarterback position. Any general manager willing to do that won't be a general manager very long. Russell Wilson won the Super Bowl as a game manager, but I contend he could also do well in a wide-open offense. Game manager or no game manager, Wilson is a winner and won't come cheap. He'll get $18 million to $20 million a year when his contract comes up. No general manager is going to be perfect putting together the players at the other positions. Quarterbacks can make it right by getting hot in the fourth quarter and winning games. Wilson can do that. The great quarterbacks can do that. The game managers who are just game managers are the ones watching the Super Bowl and not playing in the Super Bowl.

Q: It seems the signings after the draft are becoming more important. Is there any talk of adding more rounds to the draft?

Burton in Mobile, Ala.

A: There is no talk of adding rounds to the draft. The number of draft choices is collectively bargained. On a 10-year labor deal, the issue isn't big enough for owners to reopen the CBA for such an issue.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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