NFC West Inside Slant - 4/19/05

NFC West Inside Slant - 4/19/05

Aaron Rogers and Alex Smith assess San Francisco's future, Dennis Green wonders about the NFL's scheduling practices, the Rams try to nail down their draft priorities, and Tim Ruskell advises that there is no Seahawk M.O. on draft day in this week's Inside Slant.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
================
 
INSIDE SLANT
  
DRAFT STRATEGY -- The Seahawks enter the draft needing to upgrade their defensive front seven more than other areas. They have 10 picks, including extra choices in the third and fourth rounds, leaving new president Tim Ruskell with plenty of ammunition should the right trade arise.
  
This is Ruskell's first go-round as the lead decision maker for an NFL organization. He previously worked under Rich McKay in Tampa Bay and briefly Atlanta.
  
Many expect Ruskell to draft for defense given the Bucs' track record during his tenure there, but Tampa Bay's defensive-minded head coach at the time, Tony Dungy, had a lot to do with those picks. Ruskell also believes in drafting for defense, but he has said publicly that Seattle won't reach for players. "We've all gone overboard for need," Ruskell said. "Back in the Tampa days when we took Eric Curry, we really had to do something in terms of our defensive line and our front. We probably moved Eric up a grade or two and we were regretful of that afterward. After you make a mistake like that -- Eric did some things but he wasn't what we had hoped or how we had graded him -- you learn from that and try not to do it again."
  
The Seahawks ranked 26th in the NFL defensively last season.
  
First and foremost, they could use a starting-caliber pass rusher after losing DE Chike Okeafor in free agency. Newly signed DE Bryce Fisher matched Okeafor with 8.5 sacks last season, but the Seahawks would be better off with Fisher as their third DE.
  
Linebacker is another glaring need, even after the signing of free-agent veteran Jamie Sharper. Anthony Simmons was released while another longtime starter, Chad Brown, could be on his way out after a long and distinguished tenure in Seattle. Brown has been a Seahawk since 1997, but the Seahawks want him to restructure his contract. He's due $4.2 million in 2005. The Seahawks are offering approximately $1 million, while Brown reportedly wants twice that.
  
This draft appears to have more starting-caliber defensive linemen than linebackers, so Seattle might have to strike early to find an impact linebacker. The team holds the 23rd overall pick.
  
Seattle wouldn't mind trading disgruntled RB Shaun Alexander. Finding a suitor could be difficult given Alexander's contract expectations, but a draft-day deal is possible.
  
Beyond DE and LB, the Seahawks can be expected to shore up depth at C, RB, CB and possibly WR. Ruskell called this draft class "inordinately strong" at the CB position, an area the Seahawks needed to address after losing CB Ken Lucas in free agency. The addition of RFA CB Kelly Herndon was a start.
  
Under Ruskell, the Seahawks will be far less inclined to remove players from the draft board based on size. Former vice president Ted Thompson, now GM in Green Bay, generally ruled out cornerbacks shorter than 5-feet-10, for example. "We wouldn't have taken Warrick Dunn, we wouldn't have taken Anthony McFarland, Chuck Darby, Ronde Barber," Ruskell said, again alluding to his 17-year run in Tampa Bay. "There aren't enough players to go around. That doesn't measure the heart, that doesn't measure the instincts, that doesn't measure the hitting ability. You really kind of shoot yourself in the foot, in my opinion."
  
Most mock drafts have Seattle nabbing a defensive end early. Ruskell will surely go that route if the right player is available, but he didn't rule out drafting an offensive player in the first round.
  
"We have to not get so tied into a position (particularly with the first-round pick)," Ruskell said. "We have to be wide open to the whole gamut because there really isn't a guy we could bring in who couldn't challenge for a spot."
 
NOTES, QUOTES
  
--The Seahawks were happy to sign proven LB Jamie Sharper for a bargain-basement salary. Sharper's five-year, $17.5 million contract is mostly a mirage. The deal's signing bonus was for only $1.5 million, and the first-year base salary was $1 million. Despite some concerns over a knee injury, Seattle fully expects Sharper to play all 16 games this season. After all, the 30-year-old has never missed a game in eight NFL seasons. But if the Seahawks need to dump Sharper after one year, the contract would count only $1.2 million in 2006.
  
--The Seahawks have so far whiffed in their attempts to line up a veteran QB as insurance for Matt Hasselbeck. New president Tim Ruskell hasn't ruled out finding one in the draft. His previous teams drafted Matt Schaub (Atlanta, 2004) and Chris Simms (Tampa Bay, 2003). "It can happen," Ruskell said. "Would you want to make a living at it? No, you wouldn't. That's not always going to happen. You just have to be prepared for those kinds of surprises and if you do your due diligence in terms of your gathering information on all those guys, then when that guy is there in the third, you have enough information."
  
--President Tim Ruskell outlined the usual values he likes in a player: speed, toughness, aggressiveness, hitting ability. "But people overlook the instincts sometimes," he said. "We try to pay close attention to that aspect of a player's game -- his feel for the game. So even if he is maybe not the fastest or the quickest, he looks that way because he anticipates plays ahead of time and gets a jump where other players don't."
  
QUOTE TO NOTE: "In our offense, while speed is very, very important for a wide receiver it's not everything. Last year we dropped too many passes and if you get a guy who is not a blazer but catches the ball, runs good routes, can block, goes inside, he'll be a good player for you." -- Coach Mike Holmgren when asked to assess the draft prospects of former USC WR Mike Williams.
 
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
  
FRANCHISE PLAYER:
RB Shaun Alexander (has not signed franchise tender).
  
TRANSITION PLAYER:
None.
  
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
QB Brock Huard; LB Curtis Randall (not tendered as ERFA); P Tom Rouen; P Ken Walter.
  
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: DT Rocky Bernard; SS Terreal Bierria; S Marquand Manuel; CB Kris Richard.
  
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
  
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: WR Alex Bannister; RB Kerry Carter; OG Chris Gray; TE Ryan Hannam; QB Matt Hasselbeck; LT Walter Jones; TE Itula Mili; DE Ron Smith; C Robbie Tobeck; WR Jerheme Urban; WR Jason Willis; OL Floyd Womack.
  
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: LB Kevin Bentley; DT Chartric Darby; DE Bryce Fisher; CB Kelly Herndon; WR Joe Jurevicius; LB Jamie Sharper.
  
PLAYERS LOST: FB Heath Evans; MLB Orlando Huff; CB Ken Lucas; DE Brandon Mitchell; DE Chike Okeafor; WR Jerry Rice; S Damien Robinson; LB Anthony Simmons; OT Chris Terry.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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INSIDE SLANT

DRAFT STRATEGY -
Three things are true in the desert: the Cardinals need better players, the Cardinals need better players and the Cardinals need better players. Taking the last part of that first, the Cardinals came away from the 2004 draft with four quality starters with their first four picks. If they were to duplicate that, they'd be well on their way to reversing their fortunes.
  
Since Dennis Green's arrival, not only have they had one strong draft but they've had two decent off-seasons of free agency signings. While they've upgraded the overall talent base, they are far from having finished the task. Their leading rusher last year, Emmitt Smith, retired, and their leading rusher from 2002 and 2003, Marcel Shipp, is attempting a comeback from a fractured leg that cost him all of 2004. He wasn't known as a speed demon before the injury. So they need a running back, and with the eighth pick overall should be in position to take what's left among Cedric Benson of Texas, Ronnie Brown of Auburn or Carnell "Cadillac" Williams of Auburn.
  
Any of those three could waltz in and start for this team. Or, the Cardinals might wait until draft day to trade for Travis Henry of Buffalo. Green no doubt would prefer an experienced ball carrier to an unproven rookie who has "can't-miss potential." They would know what they have in Henry and then could use that No. 8 pick on a cornerback - Adam "Pac Man" Jones of West Virginia, Antrel Rolle of Miami or Carlos Rogers of Auburn.
  
There is a glaring need at corner with both of the starters having left. Duane Starks was traded to New England and Renaldo Hill signed with Oakland as a free agent.
  
According to Green, the Cardinals needs just happen to coincide with the strength of this draft. "This is the draft of the running back and cornerback," Green said. "There are probably going to be three corners and three running backs who will be drafted in the top 10 picks. That means that six spots will be taken up by just two positions. That is very unusual. There still might also be two quarterbacks taken in there. I think each year the draft takes on a different perspective, and I think this year is definitely dominated by running backs and corners."
  
Green claims the team will take the best player on the board.    "What that means is that the draft is so deep that you can take a running back or a cornerback at No. 8, at No. 44, or No. 75 -- those are our top three picks -- and you'll get a very good player at any one of those picks," Green said.
  
If the Cardinals were to come away with Henry and one of the top three cornerbacks, they would be well on their way to upgrading their team.

A Henry deal likely won't be consummated until draft day, though. With such a high pick, the Cardinals might be in position to entertain a trade down with another team and still get a quality ball carrier or corner. According to Green, the Henry trade "still has a heartbeat." The Cardinals would give up tackle L.J. Shelton. There could be swapping of picks in lower first-day rounds. The Bills want to swap second-round picks. The Cardinals haven't bit, but still could.

NOTES, QUOTES
  
--G Jeremy Bridges signed a one-year contract as an exclusive rights free agent. He was a part-time starter on the right side last season and will be in the mix to compete for the job in 2005. But he's no sure thing.
  
--CB Robert Tate signed a one-year contract as an unrestricted free agent. Unless the Cardinals come away with a starter in the draft, free agency or a trade, Tate will be a starter by default since Duane Starks and Renaldo Hill no longer are on the premises.
  
--A tribute to Pat Tillman, the former Cardinals safety who lost his life in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army Ranger, will debut on ESPN on the one-year anniversary of his death, Friday, April 22. The first airing is on ESPN at 12 noon EDT, and then at 8 p.m. EDT that night on ESPN Classic.
  
--The Cardinals have confirmed that they will unveil their redesigned uniforms on Wednesday, April 20, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Their redesigned bird logo was unveiled two months ago. They are giving no hints regarding style or colors, but cardinal red is expected to remain the predominant color.
  
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The NFL will never fail you in that regard." - Coach Dennis Green, on the perceived sense of humor by the NFL in assigning the Cardinals to play the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals - the past two teams of projected starting quarterback Kurt Warner - in the opening two weeks of the season. 

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
  
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
  
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
  
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: TE Freddie Jones; MLB Ron McKinnon; WR Nate Poole (not tendered as RFA); OG Cameron Spikes.
  
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
  
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
  
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED:
RB Damien Anderson; OT Jeremy Bridges; RB Troy Hambrick; S Quentin Harris; DT Ross Kolodziej; QB Josh McCown; CB Robert Tate; DE Peppi Zellner.
  
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: S Robert Griffith; LB Orlando Huff; DE Chike Okeafor; OT Oliver Ross; QB Kurt Warner.
  
PLAYERS LOST: CB Renaldo Hill; QB Shaun King; RB Emmitt Smith; CB Duane Starks; CB Michael Stone; LB Ray Thompson; DE Kyle Vanden Bosch; WR Karl Williams; LB LeVar Woods. 


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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INSIDE SLANT
  
DRAFT STRATEGY -
If no man's land is where some teams reside on draft day, count the Rams in that group.
  
Sitting at 19 in the first round, it's become increasingly difficult to get a handle on what might be available at that spot, especially considering the team's needs. Many first-round projections have the Rams selecting a right tackle, which certainly makes sense on some levels. However, the club's past philosophy has been to draft linemen later not sooner, especially considering the difficulty in stepping into the team's offense and being an immediate contributor.
  
With four of the first 81 choices in the draft, the Rams know there will be a solid tackle available for them after the first round. Certainly, they would grab Florida State's Alex Barron at 19 if he was available, but that is highly unlikely. It's a tossup as to whether they would pull the trigger on Wisconsin's Khalif Barnes or Oklahoma's Jammal Brown. Nebraska's Richie Incognito is a lineman the Rams could be eyeing in a later round.
  
The Rams have been studying closely the second- and third-tier groups of safeties, realizing that there aren't many top safeties available after Georgia's Thomas Davis. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Rams draft at least two safeties in the first four rounds, where they have six selections.
  
Which brings us to areas where there isn't a glaring need, but where the value could be with the 19th pick if the Rams don't trade up or down.

It appears quite likely that a defensive end or cornerback will be the top-rated player on the Rams' board when they are on the clock. There is increasing age at defensive end on the current roster with the exception of second-year man Anthony Hargrove and he can't yet be counted on as an every-down starter. At cornerback, Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler are solid starters, but depth there would be welcome. DeJuan Groce hasn't shown he can remain healthy, while Kevin Garrett so far has been a disappointment. 

NOTES, QUOTES
  
--The decision to shelve the move of linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa to strong safety now has solidified the team's starting linebacker corps. The only uncertainty between Tinoisamoa and Dexter Coakley is who will be on the weak side and strong side. Chris Claiborne will man the middle linebacker spot.The move of Tinoisamoa was announced early in the offseason, but it soon became clear it might not happen. Why is Tinoisamoa a linebacker again? Said coach Mike Martz, "He was a little nervous about the switch, that's one of the reasons we didn't make it."
  
Depth behind the three starters should be improved with Brandon Chillar, Robert Thomas and Trev Faulk. Tinoisamoa being a linebacker again also resulted in the departure of Tommy Polley to Baltimore. There had been some thought to bringing Polley back until Tinoisamoa was no longer a safety.
  
Polley came to the Rams as second-round pick in 2001 and immediately became a big-play contributor. However, his play tailed off and he was benched last season before regaining a starting job because of injuries to Chillar. Still, Polley was surprised there was little interest in free agency, settling for a one-year contract.
  
"It's difficult because I've been a four year starter," he said. "It's frustrating to be home a month and get no calls. It's kind of mind-boggling. I thought I did enough, make plays, things like that."
  
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're very impressed with his athleticism, and his flexibility of being a corner, or being a safety, or coming down in the slot at the nickel." - Coach Mike Martz on the addition of defensive back Michael Hawthorne. 

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
  
FRANCHISE PLAYER:
None.
  
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
  
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: S Zack Bronson; TE Cam Cleeland; OG Chris Dishman; S Antuan Edwards; DE Erik Flowers; QB Jamie Martin; OG Tom Nutten; S Aeneas Williams.
  
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
WR Dane Looker.
  
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS:
None.
  
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED:
OG Darnell Alford; CB Dwight Anderson; LB Trev Faulk; WR Mike Furrey; FB Joey Goodspeed; RB Arlen Harris; LB Jeremy Loyd; LS Chris Massey; OT Orlando Pace; OT Blaine Saipaia; P Kevin Stemke; OG Scott Tercero; LB Drew Wahlroos.
  
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: LB Chris Claiborne; LB Dexter Coakley; S Michael Hawthorne; S Michael Stone; DE Jay Williams; TE Roland Williams.
  
PLAYERS LOST: QB Chris Chandler; S Rich Coady; DE Bryce Fisher; OG Matt Lehr; LB Tommy Polley. 


===================
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
=================== 

INSIDE SLANT

  
The debate continues to rage over which player the 49ers should use for the No. 1 overall selection in the draft. All indications point to the 49ers using the top selection on a quarterback, but which one? Aaron Rodgers of California or Alex Smith of Utah?
  
Two weeks ago when 49ers coach Mike Nolan held a mini-camps to get acquainted with the returning veterans on the team, he made it clear that he does not consider 2005 a throw-away season. Sure, the 49ers are coming off a 2-14 record but Nolan outlined his goal to "take command of the division." While Rodgers said there would be high expectations for the 49ers with a new coach and the top overall draft pick, Smith seemed less than convinced there was an easy solution to the 49ers' problems.
  
"Obviously, this is a young team," Smith said. "This is not something that's going to be turned around right away. We're not going to be winning Super Bowls next year, I don't imagine, although we'd like to."
  
The two quarterbacks also had different answers when it was posed whether they wanted to start right away for the team that drafts them.
  
"I think it's hard to answer right now," Smith said. "That definitely depends on how well I'm doing coming into camp, how well the other quarterbacks are playing, how well I'm picking up the system." Said Rodgers, "I would expect to be able to compete for the job."
  
Nolan has said if the 49ers use the first pick on a quarterback, he would expect that player to start as a rookie.
  
The 49ers have started contract negotiations with the candidates for the top selection, and Nolan said recently that the tenor of contract talks might have some impact on which player the 49ers pick at No. 1. If that's the case, the early indications are that Rodgers is in the lead. Smith's agent, Tom Condon, negotiated the deal last year between quarterback Eli Manning and the Giants. It is doubtful he would settle for anything less than the $20 million guaranteed, as part of a six-year, $54 million deal, that Manning received.
  
Rodgers' agent Mike Sullivan reportedly got negotiations off to a good start with 49ers chief negotiator Paraag Marathe. Nolan has repeatedly said that it is a necessity to have a contract agreement with the top pick before NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue steps to the podium to deliver news of the No. 1 overall selection on Saturday, April 23.
  
DRAFT STATEGY - With a new coaching staff and a new scheme on defense, the worst team in the league has plenty of holes to fill. Coach Mike Nolan and vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan are armed with 11 draft picks, seven of which are scheduled to come in the final three rounds of the draft.
  
Certainly, most of the team's needs are on offense, where the 49ers are expected to grab a quarterback, running back, wide receiver and at least one offensive lineman over the course of the draft. They are also in the market for a tight end who can be a force as a blocker. Most of the attention will be on their decision with the No. 1 overall pick, where it looks as if quarterback Aaron Rodgers has taken a narrow lead over Alex Smith of Utah entering the final week. The 49ers began negotiations with both possible No. 1 candidates, and the early signs indicated that things were heading in a more positive direction with Rodgers.
  
Some with the 49ers believed that receiver Braylon Edwards of Michigan was the highest-rated player in the draft, but the team apparently feels compelled to choose a quarterback with the top overall selection.
  
The 49ers are in the market for a trade if another team is willing to jump up to No. 1. If the 49ers find a dance partner, they would shift their sights to cornerback Antrel Rolle of Miami (Fla.).
  
After Round 1, the 49ers are in a position where they can select the top-rated player on their board, regardless of position. With the team shifting to a 3-4 defense, Nolan and defensive coordinator Billy Davis need to find more players that fit the scheme. They can use more defensive linemen, especially a genuine nose tackle, and defensive backs. The 49ers are short-handed at cornerback and free safety. In fact, if the 49ers land a corner capable of starting as a rookie, it might allow them to move Mike Rumph, a first-round pick in 2002, to free safety.
  
The 49ers do not have to stick with any players on their roster who were high draft picks from the previous regime. That might mean that the team's last three No. 1 draft picks have to fight for jobs. Rumph could be asked to change positions; tackle Kwame Harris, already moved from the left side to the right side, is in competition for a starting job; and receiver Rashaun Woods, the team's top selection last year, will have to earn his way on the roster.
  
This is a big draft for Nolan and McCloughan simply because it will set the tone for the organization. It will also demonstrate what kind of players the new decision-makers of the 49ers will target in the future. 

NOTES, QUOTES
  
--Both times the 49ers have used the No.1 overall pick in the draft, they have selected receivers. In 1964, the 49ers selected Dave Parks of Texas Tech with the top pick, and they chose Harry Babcock of Georgia in 1953.
  
--Receiver Braylon Edwards of Michigan offered an explanation of why the 49ers should go with another wideout (him, of course) again this time: "Let's say the quarterback doesn't pan out, now your franchise is in a terrible rut because you drafted a quarterback, obviously, because you didn't have anybody you trusted. (If) he doesn't pan out, now you've spent four or five years in a downward spiral. Let's say hypothetically the receiver doesn't pan out, which in this case it won't happen; you can put him on the bench and continue with the guys you already had."
  
--For the first time since the 1980 and '81 seasons, the 49ers have not been tabbed for a Monday night game in back-to-back seasons. The 49ers' only prime-time game is scheduled for Oct. 2 against the Cardinals. But that game has more to do with the location than the matchup. The game will take place in Mexico City, making it the first time in NFL history a regular-season game will take place outside the U.S.
  
QUOTE TO NOTE: "(With a) brand new coach in, bringing the top pick in, I think the expectations are going to be high, and they should be. And the Bay Area should expect this team to be a lot better next year" - QB Aaron Rodgers, whom the 49ers are considering with the No. 1 pick in the draft. 

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
  
FRANCHISE PLAYER: LB Julian Peterson.
  
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
  
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
TE Steve Bush; WR Curtis Conway; OT Jerome Davis (not tendered as ERFA); QB Brandon Doman (not tendered as ERFA); C Brock Gutierrez; FB Jasen Isom (not tendered as ERFA); DT Daleroy Stewart (not tendered as RFA); CB Jimmy Williams.
  
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: OG Eric Heitmann; OT Kyle Kosier (tendered offer by Lions; 49ers have until April 20 to match); LB Brandon Moore; LB Saleem Rasheed.
  
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
  
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: DT Tony Brown; S Dwaine Carpenter; DT Chris Cooper; RB Terry Jackson; OG Rob Murphy; LB Julian Peterson; CB Rayshun Reed; LB Ray Wells.
  
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: DE Marques Douglas; OT Jonas Jennings; PK Joe Nedney.
  
PLAYERS LOST: FS Ronnie Heard; PK Todd Peterson; DE Brandon Whiting; WR Cedrick Wilson.

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