During the early weeks of training camp, fans can get quite myopic. If you’re a fan of the San Francisco 49ers, for instance, you’re going to spend most of your time looking at what’s been going on in San Francisco, rather than paying attention to what’s going on around the rest of the division.
This is all well and good, but the fate of the 2014 49ers doesn’t just depend on what goes on in the San Francisco 49ers’ complex down in Santa Clara. Just as important as the depth-chart manipulations and new offensive schemes are the plans being plotted in Renton, Washington; Earth City, Missouri and Glendale, Arizona.
Let’s take a quick swing around the rest of the division and see how the NFC West is getting along, entering the first week of preseason action. We’ll pay special attention to how these developments will help or hinder the 49ers’ quest to regain the NFC West crown in 2014.
The big story coming out of the defending champs’ training camp was the holdout of Marshawn Lynch. The 28-year-old thumper, coming off of three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, sat out the first week of training camp before reporting on Thursday.
49ers fans hoping that the deal would damage Seattle’s salary-cap situation leave empty-handed; the Seahawks didn’t give Lynch any new money, simply moving some non-guaranteed 2015 cash into guaranteed 2014 cash. It makes sense for a running back, where wear and tear can weigh a player down quickly, to get as much money as he can up front.
How does that compare to the two 49ers who have expressed issues with their contract?
Vernon Davis’ best hope might be getting a Lynch sort of deal, with some of his roster bonuses and future base salary guaranteed now; he’s already the fourth-highest-paid tight end, according to Spotrac so, like Lynch, he’s not likely to see a lot of new money head his way.
The Lynch holdout would have hurt the Seahawks more than the Alex Boone holdout will hurt the 49ers, but now Lynch is in camp and Boone’s still nowhere to be seen. There was some brief schadenfreude when it looked like the Seahawks would be the ones dealing with a huge holdout on the same day Davis rolled into camp, but the 49ers are the ones left holding the biggest holdout bag in the NFC West when all is said and done.
The Seahawks are looking at the same sort of transition the 49ers are in the long run at running back, actually.
Behind Lynch is Christine Michael, who the Seahawks took in the second round of the 2013 draft out of Texas A&M. So, you have an aging stud veteran with a limited future with the club starting ahead of a second-round pick the team is very excited about.
It sounds like the future holds many potential Carlos Hyde vs. Michael matchups, possibly as early as 2015. With Frank Gore’s contract expiring after this season, and Lynch counting $9.25 million against the salary cap, it wouldn’t be at all stunning to see youth reign at the running back position next season.
The other most interesting story coming out of Seattle’s camp was the practice sessions with the referees. The referees came into Seattle for their annual training camp presentation on the rules that will be emphasized this upcoming season, and they paid special attention to grabbing the jersey of a receiver, according to Terry Blount on ESPN.com.
This has been something the 49ers have complained about in the past, going all the way back to 2012. Seattle’s Legion of Boom is characterized by a physical style of play that constantly tiptoes around the border of legal and illegal contact. If you wear red and gold, you probably think they cross the line more often than not, while if you’re in the blue and neon green, you’re probably saying that it’s not a penalty if they don’t throw the flag.
Well, the NFL says that they will be throwing the flag this year. Contact downfield prior to the pass is one of the major points of emphasis for this season, and former ref Mike Pereira pointed out that in 2004, the last time this was a point of emphasis, the number of illegal contact fouls jumped from 79 to 191.
Can Seattle adjust its playing style to a more rigid code of enforcement? That will be interesting to watch, especially early on in the season.
Who is the best cornerback in the NFL? A few years ago, Darrelle Revis seemed to have that title on lockdown, but injuries and Tampa Bay have slowed him down. Nowadays, the top two candidates in the NFL ply their trade in the NFC West—Richard Sherman up in Seattle, and Patrick Peterson down in Arizona.
That’s why the Cardinals made a serious effort to extend Peterson, giving him a five-year extension worth $70 million, with $48 million guaranteed, per Spotrac.
This dwarfs the previous highest cornerback ever given to a cornerback—Sherman’s deal from May; a four-year, $56 million contract with $40 million guaranteed.
Not surprisingly, this has sparked a bit of a feud between the two corners, with Sherman tweeting out pictures of his Super Bowl ring and retweeting statistics that backed him being the best corner in the game, while Peterson simply replied with the classic “you mad, bro?”
For his part, Peterson seems to be taking the feud in good fun, telling AZCardinals.com’s Darren Urban that it’s good competition:
I don’t how he feels about it, but I think it’s fun, healthy competition. I’m having fun with it, sometimes it seems like he’s a little salty with it. I don’t have any problems with Richard. I don’t have any beef with him. I am having fun. I don’t know if he’s having fun. We have had our exchanges over the last month or so and obviously he is still exchanging words this morning, but it is what it is. I have no ill feelings toward Richard. I wish him the best of luck throughout his career and season and I guess it’ll be must-watch TV when we play Seattle.
Which cornerback has given San Francisco the most trouble?
Since they both entered the league in 2011, the 49ers have faced off against each player six times—Sherman didn’t play in the first 49ers-Seahawks matchup in 2011, but the playoff matchup last year evens out the score. Here’s how each has stacked up against the 49ers’ passing game, via their Pro Football Focus stats (subscription required):
|Sherman and Peterson versus the 49ers|
|Player||Coverage Snaps||Thrown at||Rec||Yds||TD||INT||Passes Defensed||Grade|
|Pro Football Focus|
It’s a pretty open-and-shut case when it comes to which cornerback has given San Francisco more nightmares. San Francisco throws at Peterson once every 5.3 plays he’s covering, with success; Michael Crabtree scored all four touchdowns against Peterson in the two matchups in 2012. Meanwhile, the team is more scared to throw at Sherman—only going his way every 7.1 plays—and when it does, bad things happen.
So, while Peterson should enjoy his hefty new contract, it’s the taller, skinnier Sherman who is more likely to keep Greg Roman and the offense up at night.
Elsewhere in Arizona, the Cardinals are dealing with their own defensive star possibly getting a suspension for DUI. Similar to Aldon Smith, the Cardinals saw John Abraham arrested for a DUI, with police finding Abraham passed out in his car outside of a strip club on June 29.
Abraham’s not likely to get a suspension in 2014, simply due to the time it takes for things to work through the legal system. It’s also unlikely to be as long as anything Smith will get, due to the lack of other extracurriculars in Abraham’s case. All it is this season is an off-field distraction for a team trying to break the stranglehold the 49ers and Seahawks have on the top of the division.
St. Louis Rams
The biggest story in Rams camp is the fate of Sam. No, not seventh-round pick Michael Sam, but quarterback Sam Bradford, who went on injured reserve with a knee injury after playing only seven games in 2013.
The former first overall pick has been the frustrating kind of average in his career. He shows signs of taking the next step, but issues with his delivery and bad habits have him right on the edge of mediocrity. He hasn’t been bad enough to be worth trying to find a replacement for, but he hasn’t taken the next step that could lead the Rams back to the playoffs.
St. Louis essentially had the bad fortune to be a team needing a quarterback picking first in a year where there were no great quarterbacks available—the best quarterbacks after Bradford from the 2010 draft are probably Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy. In addition, as the last draft before the new collective bargaining agreement, Bradford’s being paid like a franchise quarterback anyway, counting more than $17 million against the salary cap this season, per Spotrac. Only Ndamukong Suh, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Mario Williams, Jay Cutler and Drew Brees eat up a larger chunk of salary-cap room in 2014.
Cutting Bradford next season would save St. Louis $13 million against the salary cap, which has to be tempting if he doesn’t take that next step forward. This is really a do-or-die season for Bradford and the Rams.
Of course, Bradford was beginning to show some promise at the end of last season. Project his 2013 stats out to 16 games, and Bradford was on pace for career highs in completions, yards, touchdowns and completion percentage.
What’s holding Bradford back? It’s a similar situation to the 49ers’ last first overall pick. Just like Alex Smith, Bradford’s being dinged for his arm strength.
According to Football Outsiders’ Pro Football Prospectus, Bradford only threw 34 deep passes in all of 2013. His average pass traveled 6.9 yards in the air; the NFL average was 8.3. More than half of Bradford’s passes came within five yards of the line of scrimmage—his 58 percent was among the league leaders.
With so many short passes, you’d hope at least that Bradford would have been hyper-efficient, but his completion percentage of 60.7 percent was actually below league average. Bradford just hasn’t taken the steps needed to be an elite quarterback.
Oddly, that hasn’t been the case so much against San Francisco. Since 2010, no quarterback has thrown more passes against the 49ers than Bradford, yet the 49ers have only managed to intercept him once. His 88.8 quarterback rating against San Francisco is a full nine-and-a-half points better than his career average—strange, considering how good the 49ers have been defensively during Bradford’s career.
Bradford’s guilty of the dink-and-dunk against the 49ers, too, with only 6.3 yards per attempt, but he’s been effective enough to be a solidly above-average quarterback when playing the red and gold. If he could replicate that success against the rest of the league, he’d still be overpaid, but it would be a more tolerable cap hit for him.
Could this be Bradford’s last season in St. Louis? While most opponents would be sad to see Bradford go, the 49ers might actually have better luck against whoever the new starter would be in 2015.
Bryan Knowles is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.