Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

06 Feb 2007

Four Downs: NFC West

by Doug Farrar

Arizona Cardinals

It's Not Easy Being Green...

According to a study by the Scripps Howard News Service, the Arizona Cardinals are the NFL's heaviest team, with an average per-player weight of 256 pounds. Fans of the team might be encouraged to know that their Cards lead the league in something, though they would be equally distressed to learn that the two lightest teams, the Colts and Bears, just met in the Super Bowl. What does it mean? It could indicate yet another area in which the Arizona franchise has found itself on the wrong side of the trendline.

"Many teams are moving toward more agile, athletic linemen," former Bears GM Jerry Vainisi was quoted as saying in the report. "Fashions come and go. But we are seeing teams that are rolling out more, moving the pocket. And that trend will continue, I think, at least for a few years."

Metaphor or harbinger? With the Cardinals, it's never easy to tell. In any case, head coach Dennis Green was asked to turn over his key to the team refrigerator after a three-year stint which will be noted primarily for a 16-32 record, the worst offensive line in recent memory (2005 version), and one very hilarious press conference. He has been replaced by former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who now has a great deal of talent at his disposal if he can point it in the right direction.

The Cardinals have a potentially great young quarterback, a big-name 1,000-yard rusher, and two marquee receivers ... but they finished 21st in Offensive DVOA due to a horrible offensive line that kept Edgerrin James from posting a single 100-yard game during his first three months with the team. That line improved a bit toward the end of the season, but it's still a major concern. It would be nice if Matt Leinart had more time to throw to Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald; that's a possible Pro Bowl battery. Leinart, a product of USC when it was basically the NFL's 33rd team, is that rare quarterback who probably found his line to be a downgrade at the next level.

The defense can be described as decent parts in fits and starts. You'll get little argument if you assert that the Oakland Raiders are the worst team in football, but those very Raiders led the NFL in pass defense by yards, because pass defense by yards is a misleading statistic. Bad teams obviously often play from behind, and opposing offenses use the ground game to run down the clock. Therefore, the fact that the Cards finished 29th in passing yards allowed tells you quite a bit about their secondary. DVOA rates their pass defense 26th. Safety Adrian Wilson, a longtime FO favorite, joins Chike Okeafor and Karlos Dansby as what could be key ingredients in a more integrated unit. And really, that's the lasting image of this 5-11 team: The stuff's on the table, but someone's gotta know what to do with it. Whisenhunt's abilities as a master chef -- preferably with some fat-free options at hand -- will be on display right away.

Who Could Leave?

Arizona has 14 unrestricted free agents. The most notable is left tackle Leonard Davis, who hasn't come close to validating his status as the second pick in the 2001 draft. He may get looks from teams that are desperate at tackle, but few teams have more pressing line needs than Arizona. Most likely, it's down to whether the Cardinals want to continue trying to collect on that investment. Center Alex Stepanovich was replaced by Nick Leckey in October after getting mauled at the point of attack one too many times. He's most likely gone, with Leckey's restricted free agent status the more important issue. Backup running back Marcel Shipp is a decent player worth keeping, but one might imagine that Shipp would be eager to try his luck with a better line.

Whom Should They Sign?
(Projected cap space: $36.7 million)

Two free agent signings have already been made on the coaching staff that should provide quick dividends. Whisenhunt will no doubt be an upgrade over Green, and former Steelers assistant head coach Russ Grimm is also on board to give that "legendary" offensive line a dose of the toughness he picked up as a near-Hall-of-Fame guard with the Washington Redskins' "Hogs." Grimm's addition puts much-needed credibility on display to potential free agents that may have never considered a move to the Valley of the Sun. This is where help is most desperately needed. The Cardinals are decently set at guard with Deuce Lutui and Milford Brown, but every other position could be easily improved and Lutui is probably the only member of the current front five that could survive a clinical housecleaning. Arizona also needs help at every defensive back position not manned by Adrian Wilson or Antrel Rolle, and Rolle needs to cut down on the penalties; his 14 penalties for 117 yards (third-highest in the league, behind only Chris McAlister and Alex Barron) did a lot to counterbalance his productivity.

St. Louis Rams

The King is Half-Undressed

From the beginning of the 2005 season to the end of the 2006 season, the Rams changed coaches (twice, from Mike Martz to Joe Vitt to Scott Linehan), endeavored to put a more balanced offense on the field, saw Steven Jackson become one of the NFL's elite running backs with 1,528 rushing yards and 90 receptions in his third year, and watched Marc Bulger recover from shoulder injuries in 2005 and a slow start in 2006 to finish behind only Peyton Manning in DPAR for quarterbacks. But two things didn't change for the Rams in 2006: First, their defense ranked 29th in the NFL in DVOA for the second straight season ... and second, the Rams missed the playoffs for the second straight season.

Coincidence? Hardly. St. Louis' DVOA rankings split between offense and defense -- their offense ranked sixth overall -- was the third-biggest discrepancy at 23 behind Oakland's 26 (32nd offense, sixth defense) and Minnesota's 25 (29th offense, fourth defense). If you combined St. Louis' offense and Oakland's defense, you'd have a Super Bowl contender (and possibly a Super Bowl champion). Would that it worked that way! Since it doesn't, the Rams will have to deal with the reasons for their defensive debacle: the line, the linebackers, and the secondary.

Okay -- it's not quite that bad, but it's pretty close. Defensive end Leonard Little, the defense's one true standout player, had 13 sacks, his most since 2001. But the rest of the line struggled, and the Rams finished 31st in the league in defensive Adjusted Line Yards up the middle, ahead of only the Colts (regular-season edition). Linebacker Will Witherspoon, acquired as a free agent, moved to the middle and led his new team in tackles after a very effective time on the outside in Carolina. Pisa Tinoisamoa, the most well-known of the St. Louis linebackers, struggled with injuries. Four defenders -- Fakhir Brown, Ronald Bartell, O.J. Atogwe and rookie Tye Hill -- tied for the team lead with three interceptions each as the Rams picked off a total of 17, and the young secondary does have some promise. For the most part, however, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has a tough road ahead.

Who Could Leave?

Among the 14 unrestricted free agents the Rams must consider are two receivers. Kevin Curtis finished sixth in DVOA among wide receivers with at least 50 passes. 479 yards and four Veteran running back Stephen Davis was a valuable mentor to Jackson, advising him to change the pad level at which he ran, which minimized Jackson's negative plays. Davis will be 33 when the season starts. Cornerback Travis Fisher missed the second half of the season and will most likely test the market. Left tackle Todd Steussie started for Orlando Pace when Pace was hurt, and the UFA would bolt if a starting job was offered elsewhere. Punter Matt Turk was a rare bright spot in St. Louis' special teams, with 26 punts dropped inside the 20 and only five touchbacks. That could have new position coach Al Roberts pushing for the front office to re-sign him.

Whom Should They Sign?
(Projected cap space: $31.98 million)

Possibly another receiver, depending on what happens with Curtis, but Bruce and Torry Holt are still there and the desperate needs are almost all defensive. The interior line is a real problem, as La'Roi Glover's reps need to be monitored and Jimmy Kennedy has never lived up to his potential. The Rams need a better rotation, and they'll be fighting the Seahawks for run-stopping free agent prospects. However, Seattle's Craig Terrill is an underrated pass-rushing DT who excels on special teams. He'd be a great fit. Isaiah Kacyvenski would be a good re-sign, as he's a decent backup linebacker with special teams ability. The Rams may also be looking for upgrades at defensive end opposite Little, and would be very wise to focus on defensive and offensive line depth in the draft.

San Francisco 49ers

The Audacity of Hope

The 49ers came within one win of an interesting feat -- doubling their win total for the second straight year. The 2-14 team Mike Nolan inherited after the 2004 season finished 7-9 in 2006. The 49ers can thank a stellar rushing attack, an offensive line nobody expected, Walt Harris' best season in an 11-year career, and the low-hanging fruit of the NFC West. Some believe that the 49ers are one more good draft away from a possible division title, but there should be some hesitation before people go nuts and jump on this bandwagon. First, there are San Francisco's DVOA numbers -- 29th overall in team efficiency, 22nd on offense and 28th on defense. The rushing attack, despite Frank Gore's franchise record 1,695 yards, still finished 15th in DVOA. How is this possible?

Because, among other things, DVOA adjusts for opponent, and the 49ers didn't beat a single top-shelf team in 2006. Their seven wins came against the Rams, Raiders, Vikings, Lions, Seahawks (twice), and Broncos. They were swept by the Cardinals, they beat two teams with winning records, and the winning record in both cases was 9-7 (Seattle, Denver). The aggregate season-ending DVOA of the teams San Francisco beat was -13.5%, which would rank right between the Seahawks (25th) and the Cardinals (26th).

However, there is some reality behind the fantasy of the first competitive 49ers team since the Mariucci era ended in 2002. Gore and fullback Moran Norris anchor a backfield loaded with promise, the offensive line finished seventh in FO's Adjusted Line Yards statistic, the linebacker corps has a great future with Manny Lawson and Brandon Moore, and cornerback Walt Harris, a Redskins reject, went off the freakin' hook with a career-high eight interceptions.

The questions that will need to be answered, through free agency or the draft, emanate from a front office renowned for its parsimony and naiveté. What's not often discussed is the turnaround in the executive branch, as bumptious owner John York spends more time extending the Monster Park lease and wondering where his next stadium will be, leaving personnel matters to the able Scot McCloughan and Paraag Marathe. There's an intriguing blend of the new and old schools, and it bodes well for the team's future.

Who Could Leave?

The 49ers re-upped Norris for three more years, a very smart move. They'd love to re-sign UFA tight end Eric Johnson, who caught 49 passes while subbing for injured top pick Vernon Davis, but Johnson wants -- and can get -- a starting job. He'll head for greener pastures. The 49ers are also waiting to see if offensive coordinator Norv Turner will become the Cowboys' head coach.

Whom Should They Sign?
(Projected cap space: $42.1 million)

The 49ers have more money to spend than any other team, and some real positions of need. Wide receiver is a big bugaboo after Antonio Bryant and Arnaz Battle disappointed in 2006, and there will be positions to fill as the defense solidifies its 3-4 future. This is where the money needs to go. Isaac Sopoaga is the most likely nose tackle on the roster, but reinforcements will be required. The 49ers also lack the fourth linebacker for that formation, which is why they were stuck in 4-3 for most of 2006 in spite of Nolan's preferences.

Seattle Seahawks

King Midas in Reverse

As the first team since the 1999-2000 Tennessee Titans to lose the Super Bowl and make it back to the playoffs the following season, the Seahawks set aside that mysterious "Loser's Curse" (Double Yoi!) and came within an overtime field goal of the NFC Championship game. However, their season ended in Chicago on fumes and spare parts. With 59 starter-games lost to injury in 2006, the Seahawks were by far the most depleted playoff team, and the impressive nature of that accomplishment was mitigated by the weakness of their division -- Seattle's NFC West opponents finished 20th, 26th and 29th in total DVOA (St. Louis, Arizona, and San Francisco, respectively) -- which is how the Seahawks finished 25th in that category and still got a postseason home game.

Don't expect it to happen again. Coaching and personnel changes aside, the NFC West will most likely improve in 2007, under no other principle than the one which says that it can't get much worse. (I hesitate to use the term "regression to the mean" when talking about this division, because the "mean" may actually be this bad.) The Seahawks will have to improve as well, but the main thing that will have to improve is their fortune. Branch Rickey used to say that luck is the residue of design, and he was right -- losing center Robbie Tobeck and right tackle Sean Locklear for a total of 13 regular-season games to injury was a blow, but it would have been less of a blow had Steve Hutchinson not been living out his poison pill fantasies in Minnesota.

With that patchwork line, Matt Hasselbeck (knee, four games out) and Shaun Alexander (foot, six games out) were sitting ducks as never before. With such offensive flux, the defense was more strained due to the offense's inability to sustain long drives. Injuries to the defensive line exposed a weak secondary even before said secondary became so banged-up that GM Tim Ruskell was signing street free agent defensive backs for the playoffs.

Professional football is about subtraction by attrition to a very great extent, and smart front offices learn how to build from roster spots one through 53 -- the 2003 Patriots lost 87 starter-games to injury and still won the Super Bowl because they knew this. After a very Moneyball 2005, the Seahawks became reactive in the follow-up year, hoping that a few big transactions (Julian Peterson, Nate Burleson, Deion Branch) would cover the wounds just enough to get by. This team went from building wide to building tall, and they will pay for it in 2007 if a re-set isn't forthcoming.

Who Could Leave?

The Seahawks have 13 unrestricted free agents (Tobeck, listed as a UFA on some sites, has officially retired), and Priority One has to be kicker Josh Brown. Brown won four games in 2006 with late field goals, improved his kickoff distance for the fourth straight season, and three of his six misses were blocks in the season's first two weeks, when the team was adjusting to the loss of injured veteran long-snapper J.P. Darche. Darche is also a free agent, and the Seahawks will want him back if he's healthy. Priority Two is a tie between slot receiver Bobby Engram and free safety Ken Hamlin. Engram is 34 and has missed time the last two seasons, but he's Hasselbeck's second-most trusted receiver behind Darrell Jackson. Hamlin is streaky in coverage and as a tackler, but he led the team in interceptions and he's a defensive leader.

The likely departures are the second-tier players -- this could be said of just about every team with the salary cap increasing $7 million to $109 million total -- injury-prone guard Floyd Womack, dime corner Jimmy Williams, and utility linebacker D.D. Lewis, who could start elsewhere. Among Seattle's restricted free agents, receiver D.J. Hackett is likely to get the most interest from other teams -- Hackett was Seattle's best receiver in DPAR and ranked second in the NFL in DVOA. RFA right tackle Sean Locklear won't go far -- the Seahawks want no part of another Hutchinson debacle.

The one wild card is tight end Jerramy Stevens, whose contract voids this year. Stevens has the physical ability to be the best at his position but has never been able to put it together. Mike Holmgren's offense requires a reliably productive tight end, and it's still not known whether Stevens is that player. The Seahawks could franchise him at a relatively low number ($4,371,000, according to the NFLPA) or lose him to a team intrigued with his "could-be" factor.

Whom Should They Sign?
(Projected cap space: $21.9 million*)

Going into 2007, Seattle's obvious needs are at guard, defensive tackle (run-stopping version), and quite possibly both safety positions if Hamlin leaves. Strong safety Michael Boulware was demoted early in the season because he kept biting on running plays, though he rebounded late in the season. The Seahawks recently signed former 49ers defensive coordinator, Falcons head coach, and KJR talk-show star Jim Mora to coach their secondary, and that's a very interesting wrinkle when thinking of potential free agent DBs. On the lines, either guard Eric Steinbach or Kris Dielman would certainly look good between Walter Jones and Chris Spencer. Oakland's Terdell Sands is probably the best interior defensive lineman available for Seattle's 4-3 system. Kevin Kaesviharn is an intriguing safety option. If Mack Strong can't bounce back from an off year, fullback will be a major concern as well, because there isn't anyone behind him who's a good blocker.

Friday: AFC West by Michael David Smith

*All projected cap numbers courtesy of www.askthecommish.com. These numbers are "ballpark" and are subject to change. The intention is to give an approximate idea of each team's available resources before free agency and the draft begin.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 06 Feb 2007

73 comments, Last at 10 Feb 2007, 9:39pm by Tom Kelso

Comments

1
by ammek (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 4:35pm

But what would happen if you combined the Rams' defense with the Raiders' offense? The football equivalent of Battlefield Earth?

2
by Crushinator (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 4:50pm

This'll be a weird offseason. So many teams have so much money. Some players are going to get seriously overpaid.

3
by John (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 5:01pm

I hope Eric Johnson goes to GB.

4
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 5:09pm

Yeah, this is the winter to be a free agent. I think the teams that ponied up cash last summer, or signed guys during the season, to keep them from entering free agency this winter, were wise. There is going to be too much money chasing too few players, and guess what (channeling Milton Friedman)? Rampant inflation! I guess that makes it a great winter to be an agent as well.

5
by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 5:17pm

What, you're trying to tell me Drew Bennett wouldn't get $5 mil a year every year? Blasphemers!

6
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 5:37pm

I wonder if the Patriots will try to poach DJ Hackett from the Seahawks. Would they have to give up a draft pick for him?

7
by DB (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:03pm

I'm going to go ahead as assume that the "Double Yoi!" in the Seahawks section is a Myron Cope reference. Is Mr. Farrar a Pittsburgh fan?

8
by dryheat (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:05pm

#6, no they wouldn't. However, Seattle could match any contract offer and keep Hackett. Given that he's probably their third best receiver, and the Patriots aren't going to sign him to an expensive contract, it's hard to imagine the Seahawks wouldn't match. New England would be more likely to land him in a trade if they liked him.

9
by MJK (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:05pm

But what would happen if you combined the Rams’ defense with the Raiders’ offense? The football equivalent of Battlefield Earth?

More interestingly, what would happen if the Rams played the Raiders, specifically when the Raiders had the ball? (Did that happen this past year? I don't follow either western division enough to know...) Hmmm, the very stoppable force meets the very moveable object... Sounds like the Sports Bar in Hell...

10
by throughthelookingglass (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:09pm

7-Seahawks Fan.

I'm hoping the Cardinals can pick up Eric Steinbach, and he can play tackle, and either Clements or Samuel. I think this team can win the division, but that says more about the division than the Cardinals. Basically, I'm hoping Leinart doesn't turn into Bert Jones c1980 soon because of the line play.

11
by navin (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:11pm

Even with 40+ million in cap space, I sure hope that SF restrains their spending like the Patriots do. Maybe go after that one special player, like Adalius Thomas and then get a bunch of underrated cheap receivers, like a DJ Hackett.

The moves over the past couple seasons leave hope that they will do that. One bad offseason could ruin all the progress the team made this year.

12
by J (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:11pm

#1- They tried that and ended up with the Florida State Football team

13
by navin (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:12pm

Saint Louis shut out Oakland, 20-0. So now you know just how bad the Oakland offense was.

14
by Doug Farrar (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:13pm

#7 - I'm a Seahawks and Myron Cope fan. Cope used to write for SI as well - really good stuff.

15
by NF (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:19pm

1: The 2005 San Francisco 49ers.

16
by MRH (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:19pm

Re #9 - The Rams shutout the Raiders, 20-0, week 15. In Oakland. Raiders had 5 turnovers. They actually out-gained the Rams and only went three-and-out twice. But except for an 88 yd drive to nowhere in the last three minutes, their longest drive was 39 yds (ended in an INT).

The Rams had 4 three-and-outs, but two long drives (15 plays, 82 yds, 7:34 TOP; 13 plays, 72 yds, 6:57 TOP) that ended in FGs. Their two TDs came off short fields (4 plays, 24 yds; 1 play, 19 yds).

The Ram defense was much better at D than the Raiders offense was at O.

17
by James C (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:31pm

It seems to me that there are about 25 or so teams that fans of the team want to go out and sign one of Clements or Samuel, and Samuel may not even get to the market anyway.

It is a similar position for most positions in this year's free agency. At most positions there aren't going to be more than a couple of guys to sign if that many. For example the best OT seems to be George Foster and he isn't top drawer, so teams are going to think long and hard about paying up for guys like Dielman and Steinbach hoping that they will be able to play tackle. The pickings aren't much richer at other spots, in short hardly any quality starters are going to hit free agency. 20 teams have got $19.8m or more in cap room, only 5 teams have less than $7m. Free agency isn't going to be much of a bonanza for teams this offseason, but a handful of players are going to get royally over-paid.

18
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:33pm

#9/#16:

To summarize, it went exactly according to expectations.

The Raiders offense came on the field, the Rams defense consistently let them move down the field until the Raiders offense imploded.

The Ram defense was much better at D than the Raiders offense was at O.

Not quite. I think when a bad O plays a bad D, the bad D will always win. Offense requires execution. Anyone can sack a QB if the offensive tackle doesn't block you, and defensive backs always have an interception advantage against a bad offense because they're always facing the QB.

19
by The Ninjalectual (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:36pm

the 49ers didn’t beat a single top-shelf team in 2006. Their seven wins came against the Rams, Raiders, Vikings, Lions, Seahawks (twice), and Broncos.

Didn't you list one top-shelf team there at the end? One that was playing to get into the playoffs?

20
by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:48pm

As someone who watched (read: was on in the same vicinity as a TV showing) the Rams-Raiders game, let me assure you it was the worst game to watch of the NFL season, featuring incredible levels of ineptitude. The focal point of this was, naturally, the Raider quarterbacks, but it extended to much of the rest of the game. ISTR the Rams running Jackson ineffectively up the middle time and again while Walter came in at the start of the 4th quarter trailing only 13-0 and promptly threw two interceptions. When I get home, I can dig up the chat log and refresh my mind as to just how bad each team looked.

21
by Gordon (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:57pm

Nice, nice, nice. Really enjoyed this article, and I'm looking forward to the rest, especially the NFC East.

22
by Paralis (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 6:58pm

#6, #8, #11: Hackett's an ERFA. The exclusive rights are just that. He's not allowed to negotiate with anybody else once Seattle makes a minimum qualifying offer (somewhere around $300k, I believe). What #8 describes is the transition tag, which can only be applied to UFAs. So although it's possible that another team would try to trade for Hackett, they'd probably have to agree to compensation before the Seahawks permitted any negotiations with Hackett.

23
by Joey (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 7:29pm

B - Hackett is a restricted free agent and likely will be tendered for a first rounder.

24
by underthebus (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 7:31pm

I'm really excited to see what the NFC West teams do during free agency. I think we could see this division making a huge leap in performance next year. Not counting Seattle, the teams all have a good amount of money to spend and there are a lot of blue chip defensive players available through free agency. It seems like the teams in this division have decent-above average offenses (that are probably going to get better) and horrible defenses. It sort of reminds of the NBA when the Heat got Shaq. The Eastern conference, always known for being the weaker conference suddenly became the better conference. I think if a few big name FA's get lured over, we might see a similar trend in the NFL. Plus these teams all get to draft pretty high (except for Sea).

25
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 7:31pm

Didn’t you list one top-shelf team there at the end? One that was playing to get into the playoffs?

Denver was trying to get into the playoffs, but so were plenty of other teams. Denver collapsed pretty hard by the end of the year, when San Francisco played them.

Playing Tennessee at the beginning of the year would've been similar.

26
by Kyle W (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 8:09pm

Is there anything salvageable on the Rams D? I am a Rams fan but I didn't manage to see more than a couple of their games this year (damn Uk Tv) from what I have read it sounds like they will need at least a couple of years to fix all of the problems they have.

27
by Paralis (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 8:11pm

#23 - Hackett's 2004 year didn't count as an accrued season under NFL rules (although I'm not sure why), so he won't be eligible for RFA until 2008. Here is a link to his NFL player page; he's only got two accrued seasons. Locklear and most other 2004 draftees have three.

28
by NF (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 8:47pm

20: The Rams-Raiders tilt was horrific on gamecast!

29
by Shawn (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 9:19pm

Seattle wont let Hackett go! There will more than likely be a trade for Darell Jackson or Bobby Engram will not be resigned but Hackett is young and part of the Seahawks plans for the future.

30
by Doug Farrar :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 9:28pm

I would agree that the Seahawks are very, VERY unlikely to let Hackett get away. They certainly know what kind of potential he has by now.

31
by Joey (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 9:41pm

Paralis, Hackett 04 season does count as an accured season. He was inactive for the first 7 games of his rookie season before being placed on IR. The NFL page is not accuarte for some reason. But I guarantee he is an RFA this season.

32
by Phil (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 9:44pm

Doug,
Just wanted to thank you for the great read. Can't wait for the next installments.

I already get the feeling this is going to be another long off-season. Maybe someone can pull a Big Ben (or a Munson, if you prefer), and give us something to talk about and pass the time away.

33
by Ken (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 10:12pm

I would like an authoritative source such as Football Outsiders speculate where Chicago or the Colts would have been at the end of the season, if they would have suffered the same position injuries for the same durations as the Seahawks.

Put them down if you will, but they came within a TD of going back to the Super Bowl with bailing wire and duct-tape and I don't think there are many teams that could have matched that.

34
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 10:50pm

#33: You seem to be of the opinion that the Seahawks played in the conference championship game. They did not.

35
by Yaguar (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 11:06pm

I expect a lot of teams could have matched that if they had the good fortune of playing in a division with the Niners, Rams, and Cardinals.

36
by Independent George (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 11:11pm

Put them down if you will, but they came within a TD of going back to the Super Bowl with bailing wire and duct-tape and I don’t think there are many teams that could have matched that.

They were also within a fumbled snap of going home in the first round.

37
by blacksuit (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 11:13pm

The niners have made wise decisions so far in their rebuilding process, and I hope it continues. Alex Smith has tremendous potential. Best case, they pick up a good receiver and Smith takes another step forward.

It also seems that some new englandesque principles are being applied as well, with key players being let go, no overspending on wideouts, a smart qb, and balance on offense and defense.

38
by Crushinator (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 11:19pm

30

How do they keep him then, if they have to pay him any significant amount? He's their #4 WR, right?

39
by Yaguar (not verified) :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 11:20pm

They get an extra third rounder for Brandon Lloyd, don't they? They're laughing their asses off at that one. Also, they got to stick the Redskins with Mike Rumph.

Seriously, is there any franchise that hasn't fleeced the Redskins?

40
by Doug Farrar :: Tue, 02/06/2007 - 11:34pm

#38 - They can't really look at it that way. If they do, they're nuts. Right now, he's better than Engram and can play in the slot. Hell, right now, he's better than everyone but Jackson at 100% health. I think this will be the year that he goes to #3 and sees more time.

Put it this way - there were people who saw the Branch trade as pure folly. Losing their first-round pick in 2007 when the Seahawks hadn't even seen what Hackett could do full-time seemed a bit desperate to me. I was never in favor of the terms of that deal, and Hackett's potential was a major reason why.

41
by NF (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 12:27am

39:

Well, the Jets if you count just year 1 of the Lavernues-Moss trade. However, year 2 does not look nearly as lopsided.

42
by Steve Sandvik (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 2:05am

A seahawks fan here, in case anyone doesn't figure it out.

-Hackett needs to replace Engram as the starting possession receiver. If that doesn't happen it'll be either misplaced loyalty, or some weird intuition that Engram won't have a third straight year with significant time lost to injury. Consider how well Hasselbeck does at finding Hackett already--it can only get better if he's a starter.

-The Hawks had a safety who they acquired last year that was tearing it up in the preseason (yes, I know preseason is preseason, but everyone was very excited about the upgrade around here) but got hurt. Mike Green, or something, I think it was. If he recovers and is still under contract they may not need as much help as people think.

-Chike Okeafor gets a lot of props for his play, but you'll note he left either a year before, or immediately before, the Hawks NFC championship season, and without naming names, the players on the defensive front said some really pointed things about the "me first" players being gone now, and how much better chemistry was. So he may be one of those clubhouse cancer types, or he may just have not clicked with some of the guys who stayed.

Anyway, if I were setting up the Hawks offense right now, I'd go 3 receivers with Branch, Hackett, and Jackson, and try and find an H-back that can play some fullback and some tight end, like they tried to do with Ryan Hannam a bit in the playoffs (a Chris Cooley type, I think, is what I'm trying to describe). I don't think Mack Strong will come back as an every down player, though I think he probably has two more years where he's an asset, and I don't think Alexander can spend all day in the 1-back effectively, though Morris probably can. They do need to figure out the left guard position though--Womack was there for most of the wins this year, but he has trouble staying healthy, and never really looks comfortable even when he's playing relatively well. He's nice to have as a backup, but he's really not a quality starter.

43
by GMan (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 3:46am

#26: I'm a Rams fan who watched most of their games this year and unfortunately, I don't think there's a quick fix for this defense. The only bright spots are Leonard Little, who's getting old, and Will Witherspoon. They have some young guys in the secondary that could develop, including first-round draft choice Tye Hill who eventually entered the starting lineup. The Rams coaches also say they like Victor Adeyanju, a rookie 4th round DE. But by and large, the defense is more than a few tweaks away from being good.

44
by Kyle W (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 7:28am

43: Thanks that is what I thought and was worried about.

45
by Harris (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 9:55am

"Bumptious." That is a fabulous word. I'm going to take every excuse I can find to start using that today.

46
by mactbone (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 10:51am

Re 42:
Mike Green is not very good. He was bad on the Bears and most fans wanted him gone ASAP, we never understood why he started. He's not a great tackler and gets lost in coverage. He was a decent nickle back, but at safety he's just not good enough.

47
by Tom Kelso (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 11:52am

They only were within a TD of having to go to New Orleans to play the NFC Championship game. Not quite the same thing as the Super Bowl.

48
by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 12:11pm

"Dennis Green... will be noted primarily... the worst offensive line in recent memory (2005 version)..."

Doug, the 2006 Oakland Raiders would like a word with you.

I don't see a lot of NFC West teams, but I think it's fair to say that no division is better set at QB than this one. Now if someone could just build a roster around one of them.

49
by Mr. Beefy (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 12:28pm

I think the Seahawks can win it all next year if they put Holmgren back as GM and potentate of the franchise. :).

50
by Sam B (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 1:13pm

Nice article Doug.

51
by mmm... sacrilicious (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 1:20pm

#39: Ahhh, the Knicks of the NFL.

#22: Are you sure that Hackett's an ERFA? Both the Seattle Times and Seahawks Insider list him as a RFA, and he was drafted in 2004, which was 3 seasons ago. The only thing I can think of that would make him an ERFA is if he was on the practice squad for his entire first year - players only get accrued service if they are on the active or inactive roster for at least 6 games in a season.

If he is, indeed, a RFA and Seattle doesn't give him a first-round level tender (although they probably will, after the poison pill debacle), could the Niners give him a contract offer that pays him something like $10-12 million in the first year, then minimum salaries for 3-4 years after that, to keep the Seahawks from matching? The Niners aren't going to use all their $42 mil of cap space, so they could afford that, but Seattle couldn't afford to blow half their cap space on a third WR.

52
by SoulardX (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 1:57pm

Rams resigned Little to a 3-year extention during the season. He isn't a FA.

53
by NF (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 2:05pm

An interesting note about Alex Smith: FO has found that on average QBs peak at 32. I'm guessing this represents the point after which the rate of decline in physical ability is greater than the rate of improvement in mental skills. Phillip Rivers, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger will be at their peak about 7 seasons from now, and they will likely all be in the decline phase of their career 10 years from now. 10 years from now, Alex Smith will likely be at or very close to his peak. Alex Smith is the youngest starting QB in the NFC West. He is 9 years younger than Matt Hasselbeck, 7 years younger than Marc Bulger, and 1 year younger than Matt Leinart.

If he is as good as David Lewin's projection implies he is, with good luck, his entire career as a starting QB could be 2 decades long, which would be the longest in NFL history. He has already been the primary starter for two seasons, and if he peaks in ability around age 32, he will need to be the starter for only 8 more seasons to have been a starting QB in the NFL for 20 years, at which time he will be 40. Its very unlikely, but not impossible that he'll still be starting as a QB when he's 40. A number of Hall of Fame QBs were in their final season as a starter at 39. Vinny Testaverde started 15 and a half games in 2004 when he was 41. Whether he can start for 20 seasons in his career really comes down to two factors, how good he is at his peak, and how well he can avoid injury throughout his career. I'd be interested in a study connecting how many games QBs start after they have peaked to how many sacks they take per game started over their entire career.

I say this just to note that if Alex Smith does become a perennial Pro Bowler a year from now, the potential length of his career could be a major asset to the San Francisco 49ers, as they will be able to count on having a franchise QB longer than any other team in the league. That said, having seen what Donovan McNabb went through after not having a #1 wide receiver or two good #1.5 receivers for the first 5 years of his career, they need to make it a priority to get someone on the roster who will be a real #1 WR, or Vernon Davis needs to be as good as Antonio Gates.

54
by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 2:11pm

SoulardX, you're absolutely correct. I had intended to remove that from the final edit but forgot. Now edited.

55
by Ilanin (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 4:12pm

53 - Alex Smith's projection is nowhere near as good as you seem to think it is. Lewin has him at ~4.2 DPAR per game; a solid starter but not a Pro Bowler other than at his absolute peak years.

56
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 4:44pm

Re: 55

Tony Romo put up a little less than 4.6 DPAR/game this year. Just sayin'...

57
by throughthelookingglass (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 4:55pm

Quarterbacks peak at 32? That seems highly questionable. Where is this study? Does it account for quarterbacks who were in the league and not very good in their mid-20s, and out of the league by that time?

58
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 5:40pm

Re: 57

I'm pretty sure that "peak" is only talking about the peak of a good career. Nobody really cares if some schlub's career peaks at 24 if his career is going to be over by 25.

59
by Chris (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 6:57pm

I think Alex Smith could be good. If the 49ers COMMIT to the guy, it can drastically help their franchise.

Sort of like how NE, PHI, Cincy, and Indy don't have to Draft QB's in the first 3 rounds because they already have their franchise QB.

If I were a team like the Giants or 49ers, I would stick with Smith and Manning because they have shown that upside, and if the team merely sticks with the guy, they can draft and build the rest of the team around him.

I feel that's how the Mcnabb situation played out. He wasn't spectacular early in his career ( and in fact booed on draft day), but Reid stuck with him and they build up that Defense. Remember, Early on Mcnabb ran a lot and wasn't the best QB.

If SF commits to Smith, practices fiscal responsibility ( like not over paying JPeterson), and draft well they really are playing out that New England template.

60
by putnamp (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 7:14pm

The Seahawks are predicated on a high-powered offense, so the trade for Branch made sense to me, particularly considering that we've seen significant time lost to injury at receiver every year for the past 3 years in Seattle. Last year they went ~3 weeks without both their #1 and #2 receivers, with additional time spent without one or the other. As someone said above, Jackson may be the odd man out. He's talented, but he's going to demand more money than he's worth given his injury history and the growing salary cap, and the fact that he's gotten a de facto #1 status though he may not really be as deserving of it as other "#1 receivers".

Seattle also spreads the ball out more, though, and that can certainly deflate his value, so maybe he IS deserving of it and just needs a chance to show it.

Also, the Branch trade probably won't pay off in full until next season when he's had a chance to practice with the offense during minicamps and the preseason. Would *you* spend a very late first round pick to get someone like Deion Branch if your offense thrived on its depth at WR? It seems like a reasonable value. It wasn't a huge coup, but it's not really a bad decision, nor is it anywhere near the worst decision Seattle made this season.

61
by NF (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 8:11pm

Going off-topic, but only somewhat, the unrestricted FA market for above-replacement WRs last offseason was Terrell Owens, Joe Jurevicus, Antonio Bryant, Antwaan Randle El, and Jabar Gaffney, David Givens, and Reche Caldwell. I'm probably mising someone, and its possible that players like Brian Finneran many have not re-signed with their team if they got a big enough offer. Out of all those, the Redskins go after Randle El and trade for Brandon Lloyd, who was a RFA. Fast-forward to the draft: Javon Walker was traded for an early second-round pick on draft day because of contract disputes. Fast-forward to just after preseason. Donte Stallworth is traded to the Eagles for a conditional draft pick and a LB because, well, I'm not entirely sure. The team needed a LB, but the guy the Eagles traded them had no unusual abilities other than knowing all three LB positions. Anyways, two weeks later Deion Branch is traded to Seattle for a first-round pick.

Three WRs that outclassed almost everyone in the free agent market, all with development potential, all traded for just one draft pick each. There should be a rule in football management, that if a WR was worth the money it will take to sign him, he probably wouldn't be available as an unrestricted free agent in the first place. (Except when said wide receiver is a world-class head case, and/or the team that the WR played for is broke.)

62
by langsty (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 10:33pm

the Rams are an intriguing team to me. if they can even get their defense to be merely mediocre instead of mind-bogglingly terrible, they could be pretty competetive. cf. the Saints - almost identical offense in terms of DVOA, but a below-average defense without much more than a couple of very good defensive ends to its name. Bulger's excellent year was something I was surprised not to hear more about, especially around here.

63
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 11:00pm

Anyone know what the future salary cap situation of the Seahawks is? With the huge money they were shelling out to Branch and Peterson, as well as Alexander, plus Alexander's likely decline, it seems like they could be in trouble in two or three years.

64
by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 11:28pm

Pat, it's a tough question to answer right now for any team. As long as the CBA that was ratified last year stays in place through 2011, the 2008 and 2009 salary caps will be based on 57.5% of projected total league revevue, minus benefits, divided by the number of teams. In 2010 and 2011, that percentage goes up to 58%. I remember reading a John Clayton article in which I think he mentioned that the cap could top out at $120 million by 2009. There are "trigger percentages" that could slightly increase those numbers, but I'm no salary cap expert and this is about where I begin to get a headache.

What I do wonder is what the difference between a $120 million salsry cap and an uncapped year would be. At what point are the competitive benefits of equal distribution on the low end outweighed by the financial power of the elite-market teams?

65
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 02/07/2007 - 11:38pm

At what point are the competitive benefits of equal distribution on the low end outweighed by the financial power of the elite-market teams?

Well, remember that the CBA has a salary floor as well, and it got pushed closer to the salary cap with the new CBA. The small market teams are going to have to pay people, period. Hence why the revenue sharing is such a big deal.

66
by Chris (not verified) :: Thu, 02/08/2007 - 12:07pm

I actually like SF a whole lot more if they keep Norv ( as wade phillips is reported the dallas coach).

If he can develope his new tripletts, Smith, Gore and Davis and Nolan can work the D, SF can be good.

They could go after a guy like Jarret in the draft ( which would be exciting), but the team has a lot of holes on defense.

67
by James C (not verified) :: Thu, 02/08/2007 - 12:51pm

Chris, #66

The 49ers were greatly improved on offense but their defense remained a joke. They pick at 11 (I think) and will probably take the best defensive player available or a guy like Ginn Jnr. The advantage that they do have is loads of picks in the middle rounds of the draft, and they will probably get another third after letting Peterson get away in free agency. If they spend all of these picks on defenders (because they need help everywhere) they could put together a good team. Although I think they will have to wait another year to make a meaningfull playoff run.

68
by Chris (not verified) :: Thu, 02/08/2007 - 6:57pm

James C

Good call. Yeah, their secondary was a complete joke. I even remember the previous year with Mike Rumph. I think he is probably the worst player in the entire league. I saw a player burn by him and I just wondered if Rumph was that slow or if he was playing at 50% or 75% speed. He went to the U, so I thought he was just playing at 75% speed.

I know they got rid of some of their trash ( like Rumph) and I think their LBs are underrated but I'd like to see the 49ers address their secondary and the Line on defense. They did let go of Carter and Peterson, so I'd like to see them dedicate the draft to defense.

I agree that a big name receiver in round 1 could pay dividends on O ( especially if smith will be there 10 years), but then drafting defense like gang busters.

I agree that they are silently building for the future.

69
by NY expat (not verified) :: Thu, 02/08/2007 - 7:10pm

From the DVOA stats, the SF numbers actually look average to good for WR's, but awful for TE/RB's, then decent on the line against runs to the left side, but awful everywhere else. The numbers look kinda unexpected with Bryant Young and Moore on the (offense's) right side. If they're going to wait and see if Sopoaga can take over the middle, then I'd lean towards trying to draft ILB's and safeties.
Having seen some Moore and Lawson make some great individual plays, I do worry that part of the problem is whether the defense is following their assignments.

70
by Steve Sandvik (not verified) :: Fri, 02/09/2007 - 4:38am

46-Have you *seen* Seattle's secondary? Green could still very well be an upgrade. Point well taken, though. Lots of players look good in preseason.

Not sure how similar the Chicago and Seattle defensive schemes are, as far as whether he might have different strengths in a different system, though I think they both rely on pressure from the front 4--except Seattle seemed to rush Julian Peterson a lot this year, so that's either a 5th rusher or some sort of zone blitz.

71
by Another Jake (not verified) :: Fri, 02/09/2007 - 6:22pm

Re: #63
The Seahawks are in good cap shape - their cap specialist, Mike Reinfeldt (who is about to become the Titans' GM) is one of t if not the best in the NFL. That is why any speculation about Hackett going anywhere due to $$ issues is baseless - they have plenty to work with no matter what happens with the CBA.

If you're interested in drilling down into the specifics of their cap and roster information, check out Mike Sando's Seahawks Insider (Tacoma News Tribune) and dig around. He keeps pretty meticulous tabs on this stuff.

72
by Michael (not verified) :: Sat, 02/10/2007 - 5:48pm

I predicted last year the niners were going to win 7-8 games and you ppl here were calling me crazy. You guys were saying the niners wouldnt win 5 games. I said the niners would have a good offensive line and you guys laughed at me. Im guessing the niners will get rid of kwame harris and sign leornard davis and theres been rumors that A. Thomas will come over here to SF. Also i wouldnt be surprised if the niners signed drew bennett. The future is bright in SF nolan and company are gonna get this thing done.

73
by Tom Kelso (not verified) :: Sat, 02/10/2007 - 9:39pm

I'm a little mystified by all the speculation that Adalius will reunite with Mike Nolan in SF if he isn't franchised by the Ravens.

Thomas became the disruptive force he is not under Nolan, but only after Ryan replaced Nolan as DC. I'm not sure that there are any lasting feelings between the two.