Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Jun 2014
By Vince Verhei
When it came to addressing obvious weaknesses, few teams did a better job this offseason than the Cardinals. In free agency, they added potential starters in cornerback Antonio Cromartie, left tackle Jared Veldheer, and tight end John Carlson. In the draft, they spent a first-rounder on safety Deone Bucannon, who should be a starter from day one. And then in the second, they found tight end Troy Niklas, an old school physical blocker/short-route type. They even found a quarterback of the future in Logan Thomas. As a bonus, they get healthier in 2014: Jonathan Cooper, last year's first-round pick who missed his entire rookie season after a broken leg, is expected to return to the lineup. The Cardinals won ten games last year and were the only team to beat the Seahawks in Seattle, and on paper they're even better now.
The offensive line, though, still needs some work, specifically on the right side. Veldheer and Cooper should be big upgrades at left tackle and left guard, and center Lyle Sendlein has been a desert mainstay for half a decade now. The incumbents at right guard and tackle, though, are Paul Fanaika and Bradley Sowell, two players who had never started an NFL game before last season. There were 165 offensive linemen with at least 500 snaps in the NFL last year. Sowell was second-worst among those players in rate of blown blocks per snap, according to the FO game charting project. Fanaika was in the bottom 20 percent. Last year's starter at right tackle, NFLPA president Eric Winston, remains available. It wouldn't be a surprise if he donned a Cardinals helmet again.
The Cardinals have 14 free agents on their roster. Guard Anthony Steen (Alabama) was a three-year starter for the Crimson Tide and an all-SEC player with a second- or third-round projection, but then he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in December. Offensive tackle Kelvin Palmer (Baylor) was an honorable mention all-Big 12 player as a senior. Running back Zach Bauman (Northern Arizona) had four 1,000-yard seasons in college, earning all-Big Sky honors every season. Fellow RB Tim Cornett (UNLV) went over 1,200 yards twice, the second leading rusher in Mountain West conference history. Inside linebacker Glenn Carson (Penn State) was an honorable mention all-Big Ten player. Linebacker Jonathan Brown (Illinois) was second-team all-Big Ten and was second in the conference with 119 tackles.
The Rams have perhaps the league's deepest defensive line, an impressive set of linebackers, and a lot of young talent in the secondary. They have youth and potential in the skill positions, and they added Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson with the second pick in the draft boost their offensive line. Now they need their quarterback to finally live up to his draft status.
Four years after the Rams took Sam Bradford with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, he has yet to have what you could fairly call a good season. To be fair, by most measures, he was enjoying his best season in 2013 when he tore his ACL (although his QBR was actually a little higher in 2012). Still, Bradford has never finished higher than 20th in QBR, while other young quarterbacks like Robert Griffin, Nick Foles, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson have been setting records and leading their clubs to the playoffs.
True, Bradford has not been playing in ideal conditions. His receivers, though talented, are inexperienced. His offensive line has struggled with injuries. And Brian Schottenheimer's offense has been as frustrating to watch in St. Louis as it was in New York. Still, Bradford is the man on the field taking snaps and making passes, and the player most responsible for what happens with the team's offense. And given the talent around him, he's out of excuses. If he can't figure it out in 2014, it's doubtful that he ever will.
Fifteen free agents will enter camp with St. Louis. Tight end Alex Bayer (Bowing Green) was a two-time all-MAC selection. Jarrid Bryant (South Dakota) played wide receiver and defensive back for four years (including a redshirt season) at Arizona State, graduated, then finished his career with the Coyotes as a graduate student. Running back Trey Watts (Tulsa) led Conference-USA in rushing and yards from scrimmage last season, and also scored twice on kickoff returns and once on a punt return in his collegiate career. Kadeem Jones (Western Kentucky) is the only fullback on the Rams' roster right now. He was a dangerous red zone threat in school, scoring 10 touchdowns on 52 career rushes and adding 15 touchdowns on 82 catches. Defensive tackle Deantre Harlan (Bacone College) is the first player from his school to sign an NFL contract. Defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks (West Texas A&M) had 19.5 sacks last season and was named Division II Defensive Player of the Year. If things don't work out for him on the gridiron, he could always try things between the ropes; a number of West Texas A&M alumni later became successful pro wrestlers, including Dory Funk, Jr., Terry Funk, Stan Hansen, Dusty Rhodes, Ted DiBiase, Bruiser Brody, and Tito Santana. Cornerback Marcus Roberson (Florida) entered the season as a highly-ranked prospect, but a knee injury limited him to seven games. Linebacker Aaron Hill (Minnesota) was an honorable mention all-Big Ten selection. Linebacker Tavarius Wilson (North Alabama) was named Gulf South Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Last year's starters, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, have moved together across the bay to Oakland. In their place, the 49ers plan to start Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver. Brock, the team's nickelback last year, was the target on more than a quarter of the passes aimed at San Francisco cornerbacks, one of the 11 highest rates among corners. In other words, opposing quarterbacks picked on him, over and over again, whenever he was on the field. Also, in 600-plus snaps last year, he never once made a tackle on a running play. Culliver, meanwhile, played OK as the team's nickelback in 2012. He then missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL suffered in training camp. His life since then has been a string of arrests, lawsuits, and offensive remarks. None of that has anything to do with his ability to play football, but it does mean he's a headache, and headaches tend to run out of second chances quickly.
The 49ers added Chris Cook in free agency, but the veteran has struggled to stay healthy, never playing more than 12 games in a season for Minnesota. Last year, he was one of eight corners in the NFL to give up more than 10 yards per target. It's hard to see him developing into a star at this point. There are three other veteran options on the roster: Eric Wright, Perrish Cox, and Darryl Morris. That trio combined for just 203 snaps last year.
The 49ers drafted 12 players, which only left room for seven free agents. Center Dillon Farrell (New Mexico) was on the Rimington Trophy watch list. Tackle Fou Fonoti (Michigan State) was an honorable mention all-Big Ten selection. Linebacker Shayne Skov (Stanford) was a second-team All-American and the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. However, in 2011, he suffered a torn ACL and MCL and fractured his tibia, and he also had a DUI arrest in 2012. He'll be 24 when the season starts. Pass rusher Morgan Breslin (USC) had 13 sacks as a junior after transferring from a junior college, but hip injuries ruined his senior season and limited him to 4.5 sacks. Free safety L.J. McCray (Catawba) was a three-time first-team all-South Atlantic Conference selection.
Ironically, it's the defending Super Bowl champions who have the most glaring weakness in the division. Marshawn Lynch broke so many tackles that he made the offensive linemen look better than they really were, but not even Russell Wilson was slippery enough to lift Seattle out of the bottom of FO's Adjusted Sack Rate rankings. In a division with the Cardinals, Rams, and 49ers, the Seahawks can't field a line as bad as last year's and expect to win another championship.
Remember those 165 offensive linemen with 500 snaps last season, mentioned in the Arizona section above? Five of the bottom 40 players in blown blocks per snap played for the Seahawks (including Breno Giacomini, now with the Jets). Seattle has a good center in Max Unger, a good left tackle who can't stay healthy in Russell Okung, and a bunch of question marks.
The current plan is to stick James Carpenter at left guard. Carpenter, a first-round pick in 2011, has bounced in and out of the lineup for years. Right guard J.R. Sweezy, a seventh-round pick in 2012, played defensive line in college and sometimes still seems to be adjusting to the position switch. Michael Bowie, the projected starter at right tackle, was a seventh-round rookie last year out of Northeastern (OK) State who had been kicked off Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State team. He was a healthy inactive for the Super Bowl. Second-round draft pick Justin Britt (Missouri) will challenge for a spot somewhere, but sixth-rounder Garrett Scott (Marshall) won't; the Seahawks waived Scott after a physical showed signs of a rare heart condition.
When the Seahawks open camp, they will take ten free agents with them. Guard Bronson Irwin (Oklahoma) was an honorable mention all-Big 12 selection. Tackle Garry Gilliam (Penn State) missed two years of college football with a torn ACL and subsequent infection. Quarterback Keith Price (Washington) set school records for passing touchdowns in a season and a career. Defensive tackle Andru Pulu (Eastern Washington) was a second-team all-Big Sky pick. Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat (Texas) was an all-Big 12 first-teamer, a Walter Camp All-American, and one of the stars of FO's SackSEER pass rusher projection system. Inside linebacker Brock Coyle (Montana) was an all-Big Sky second-teamer. Safety Dion Bailey (USC) started his collegiate career as a linebacker and fits Seattle's preference for big defensive backs.
Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
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