Around the NFC West: QB is the key in Arizona

Taking a look at the hot topics in the camps of the 49ers' three divisional rivals with a tour of the NFC West.

Cardinals: Better play at quarterback needed to contend

You can break down the Cardinals roster position by position. Rate individual performances from a year ago. Project how each player will do in 2012.

But how the team plays this season comes down to one major item: the quarterback.

If the Cardinals don't receive better quarterback play than a year ago, they won't contend for a playoff spot. It won't matter if the offensive line is better or if the defense continues to improve.

Unless the Cardinals get more out of the quarterback position, they will be relegated to finishing .500 at best.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff know that. That's why the organization pursued Peyton Manning in free agency. And it's why Whisenhunt made changes on his staff, replacing quarterbacks coach Chris Miller with John McNulty, the former receivers coach.

The hope is that Kevin Kolb, or John Skelton, will show great improvement after a full offseason of work with McNulty.

"When we started (this offseason), you realized how much they missed last year," McNulty said. "We're going from ground zero so to speak: each play, each protection, each situation."

Kolb was thrust into a difficult situation last season and floundered. Because of the lockout, the Cardinals traded for him in late July and his first practice was in training camp. The Cardinals' offense was dramatically different than the West Coast system Kolb ran in Philadelphia for four years, and nothing about the transition went smoothly.

Kolb didn't play well when he was healthy, and he wasn't healthy that often. He missed nine games because of injuries.

The information overload, combined with foot and concussion injuries, made Kolb's first season in Arizona a disastrous one. The hope now is that he can benefit from immersing himself in the offense over an entire offseason.

"It's like a slow-soaking process right now," he said, "because we're installing four to five plays today, four to five tomorrow, rather than training camp, when you're getting 16 to 20 at a time."

Whisenhunt is handing the job back to Kolb. Skelton has a legitimate shot to win it, Whisenhunt said, but that seems questionable. The Cardinals gave up cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick in 2012 for Kolb and have paid him $19 million. It's hard to believe they would keep him on the bench.

Skelton played well late in games last season and contributed to the team winning seven of its last nine. But he also struggled early in games and was a major reason the team had to come from behind to win so often over the last half of the season.

McNulty is concentrating on improving the fundamentals with both quarterbacks. Their footwork got sloppy last year, he said, because they were unsure of the offense.

Skelton often wouldn't reset his feet when moving beyond his initial option on a pass. Kolb would just start moving if the first guy was covered.

"If you get out of rhythm with your feet," said McNulty, "then the whole thing is broken down. You may end up moving, getting out of the way and making a play, but as far as what the play is supposed to be, it's been lost and you're playing catch-up. More times than not, bad things happen."

Rams: New regime competed heavily for rookie UFAs

Prior to this year's draft, Rams coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead were asked about the importance of free-agent signings that quickly takes place after the final pick in the draft is made.

Said Fisher, "It's a very, very important process. There's recruiting that goes on and it's very, very competitive and it happens very fast. You take into consideration that 31 other teams are doing the same thing, so you have to have a lot of phones open and a lot of stuff going on. And you have to have a plan. We've already discussed it and we'll be prepared. We get into much more detail probably in the middle part of the sixth round on."

Added Snead, "Following up on that, we need to take that important piece because I know I've always done a study at the end of the season of where starters are, where you get starters from. And you can get the same percentage of starters from college free agency as you can the second and third rounds. Now realize, in the second round you only have 32 picks, in college free agency, you usually have about 600 picks, so it's a bigger pool.

"But the same amount of starters in the NFL, usually at the end of the season come from, I think it's around 16 or 17 percent come from the second and probably 16 to 17 percent come from college free agency, depending on the year. It will fluctuate yearly, but they're pretty close. So that's a very important process and we're going to take it seriously."

It's one thing to take it seriously; it's another to compete with signing bonuses for those players pursued by multiple teams.

Comparatively speaking, bonuses are significantly lower for free agents. Last season, the final pick in the draft received a signing bonus of $45,900. Even the top undrafted players usually don't get more than $10,000 to sign. At most, one or two players each year might receive bonuses of $20-25,000.

However, when a team signs 24 players like the Rams did this year, they add up, especially when the odds are long for making the team. However, those odds aren't that much longer than late-round picks.

It is clear from contract numbers seen by The Sports Xchange that the Rams indeed were serious in their player pursuits this season. In fact, Last year, the highest signing bonus received by a Rams undrafted free agent was $5,000, which was paid to four players, including tackle/guard Kevin Hughes, who ended the season on the active roster and is with the Rams now in OTAs.

Five players received no signing bonus, and the 19 players signed by the Rams received a total of $42,500, an average of $2,236.84.

This year, the 24 players signed were paid a total of $76,500 in bonuses, an average of $3,187.50.

Most notably, five players received bonuses of $6,000 or more for a total of $39,000: Safety Matt Daniels and punter Johnny Hekker, $10,000; linebacker Sammy Brown, $7,000; and defensive tackle Matthew Conrath and tight end DeAngelo Peterson, $6,000. Another four players – defensive ends Jamaar Jarrett and Scott Smith, linebacker Noah Keller and safety Rodney McLeod – each received $4,000 bonuses. Only two players – long snapper Travis Tripucka and tight end Jamie Childers – didn't receive a bonus.

Former NFL personnel executive Gil Brandt, now with, ranked the Rams first in his evaluation of undrafted free-agent signings.

Brandt singled out Daniels and McLeod, Smith and linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who got a bonus of $3,000.

Brandt wrote, "I especially like Daniels because of his intelligence and production as a four-year starter at Duke. He displays NFL-caliber speed and reaction skills as a safety. Although Duke isn't much of an NFL factory, Daniels showcased special talent in his collegiate career. McLeod played safety at Virginia, but can transition to corner due to his speed and quickness. Hoffman-Ellis has the unrelenting competitiveness to be a great special teamer in the pros."

While one important reason Daniels signed with the Rams was the low numbers at safety on the roster, he benefited by being pursued by numerous teams. "I probably had about 15 teams calling," he told the team website. "My phone, my mom's phone, the house phone, my agent's cell phone all blowing up. So I was talking to the Broncos on one line and then hold on, I got St. Louis on the other line. It was all very hectic but it happened so fast I probably had a decision made within five minutes after the draft was all over."

Fisher likes what he has seen from the undrafted players in the first five OTA sessions of the spring.

"Good group, smart group," Fisher said. "They're learning. They're starting to get themselves into shape. We can sub in with a lot of them. Usually there's a guy on the ground or a guy going the wrong direction. These guys are doing the right thing, so overall, really good group."

The reason why is obvious.

Seahawks: Big plans at TE for newcomer Winslow

Kellen Winslow understands what he'll be asked to do for his new team – help keep opposing defenses honest when they stack the line of scrimmage to stop Marshawn Lynch.

"You want to create mismatches so I'm kind of the knight in the chess game," Winslow said. "You can move me around and control the middle of the field."

Winslow said he's ready for a fresh start after the trade from Tampa Bay, as he practiced with his new team this week for the first time.

Seattle traded a conditional seventh-round pick to Tampa Bay for Winslow. The pick could improve to a sixth-rounder depending on the University of Miami product's production.

As of now, Seattle has not renegotiated Winslow's contract. He still has three years remaining on his current deal, and is due to make $3.3 million in base salary in the upcoming season, $4.5 million in 2013 and $5.5 million in 2014.

Winslow turns 29 on July 21.

Tampa Bay replaced Winslow by signing former Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark to a one-year deal.

The Seahawks plan to pair Winslow with tight end Zach Miller and use them in two-tight end situations to force defenses to choose between running more heavy fronts to stop Lynch, or use more defensive backs to deal with Winslow and Miller in the passing game.

Winslow averaged 73 receptions and 792 yards for the past three years in Tampa Bay. Miller finished with a career-low 25 catches last season, but Winslow believes the two tight ends can create a dynamic similar to New England's two tight-end sets.

"Zach Miller is a proven veteran here," Winslow said. "Hopefully we'll be able to do something like the Patriots are doing, with (Rob) Gronkowski and (Aaron) Hernandez. We kind of fit that mold, so I'm sure we'll be fine."

Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said the team is aware of Winslow's knee issues, and the team will manage the situation as best they can.

"He's got some health issues that we're going to deal with to make sure we monitor them really well, so he can play his best," Carroll said. "We're absolutely tuned into it, and we know a lot about the history. We'll learn a lot more.

"But we think it's such a fantastic addition because he can make things happen. He can make plays. He should be a big factor on third down and in the red zone."

Winslow has had six knee surgeries since he's been in the league, including reconstructive knee surgery after he tore his ACL in the motorcycle crash in 2005 while with Cleveland, and microfracture knee surgery in 2007.

"I will have to manage my practice time but ever since the accident, I do have to live with what I have," Winslow said. "But I've been playing the last three years 16 games and the last five out of six years, I've been five years healthy. So I'll be okay. Just be smart with it and I'll be there on Sunday."

Winslow said he flew to Tampa Bay from his offseason home in San Diego for the beginning of Tampa Bay's offseason program last week, only to get a call from head coach Greg Schiano letting him know that the Bucs were trading him.

"I talked to Coach Schiano about coming back on Monday and when I arrived Saturday night, I got a call about 11 o'clock that night that they didn't want me to come in Monday and they were looking to trade me," Winslow said. "That was it. I was fine with it."

Although it's a new regime in Tampa Bay, Winslow said he'll miss the players.

"I'm going to miss my teammates out there, my boys," Winslow said. "I've grown together a lot with those guys, but it's the NFL. It's hard. It's good to have a job, you know. It's good to have a job so I'll be okay."

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