Behind enemy lines: NFC West FA 1st-week wrap

The names and faces are changing in the NFC West, and that holds plenty of relevance to the 49ers as studs such as Edgerrin James and Will Witherspoon - among others - filter into the division with rival teams via free agency. Here's a rundown on San Francisco's three divisional opponents after the opening week of free agency, along with how recent activity has affected each team's needs and approach in next month's NFL draft.


Running back Edgerrin James doesn't see signing with Arizona as giving up on trying to win a Super Bowl. James, who agreed to a four-year, $30 million contact, said, "It's a great situation. All they really need is a back."

James will earn $14.75 million in the first year of the contract when salary, signing bonus and roster bonuses are put together.

"OK it's a risk," James said of the move from Indianapolis to Arizona. "But hey, I'm a poker player. You can take it to the river. I'm not scared to make a change. I'm not scared to go out on a limb and try something different."

The Cardinals put on the full-court press for James, with wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and quarterback Kurt Warner stopping by to talk to James during his visit Saturday. Boldin also talked to James at a recent celebrity basketball game.

"I tried to ask him about his situation and he kind of explained to me what was happening with him," Boldin said. "I tried to put the feelers out on him coming out here. I was surprised because he said he'd like to come out and play with us. He thought we had a pretty good nucleus and all we were missing was a couple of pieces. The fact that we were young excited him."

--- While it is not reflected in seasons of six wins and five in 2004 and 2005, the Cardinals believe they have been proficient in off-season moves.

"Unrestricted free agency went real well for us two years ago," said Coach Dennis Green. "We got a top-line player in Bertrand Berry and then we thought we had a solid year last year. We think (2005 signees) Chike Okeafor and Oliver Ross will play a lot better this year. It took them a little while to get going and did not have the same impact that Bertrand Berry had but I think they will have that impact this year. Kurt Warner had that kind of success last year so."

--- The Cardinals have reached an agreement with Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff to hold training camp there for three more years.

--- The Cardinals' current top-three offseason needs:

Offensive line: The Cardinals have some names on the roster who should be performing at a higher level - Leonard Davis, Oliver Ross, Elton Brown, Alex Stepanovich. Guard Milford Brown was also signed away from Houston. Injuries stymied Ross and Stepanovich, and Brown was a rookie. Davis hasn't emerged into a premier left tackle and could move back inside to guard. But the bottom line is the Cardinals need to improve not only the chemistry but also the talent in order to reverse a rushing game that couldn't convert on third-and-2, couldn't punch the ball into the end zone in goal-to-goal down and distance, and had the second-worst rushing game since the NFL-AFL merger. With the 10th pick in the draft, they may miss on Virginia tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who likely will be long gone. Instead, look for them to hit the offensive line hard in free agency, and then fill in during the draft, likely taking a lineman with a first-day pick.

Defensive tackle: The team has attempted to use quick, undersize players inside for years. Darnell Dockett has shown playmaking ability but might be better suited to play end. Russell Davis, a veteran warrior, is an unrestricted free agent. While the team wants to sign him back, it is no slam-dunk that he'll return. Depth also became a critical issue at these spots when injuries took a toll as the season wore on. This, too, will be a high priority during free agency, but the team also is expected to draft a tackle. This probably won't be a first-round priority, but it will be a first-day priority in the draft.

Cornerback: While the Cardinals have had individual outstanding cornerbacks, most notably Aeneas Williams, they haven't had a formidable pair of them in recent memory. Antrel Rolle, last season's first-round pick, missed 11 games to a knee injury. It remains to be seen if he is the player they believe he is. Fellow 2005 rookie Eric Green saw spot-starting duty, largely because other players were injured, but he, too, has upside to his game and could develop into a serviceable starter. The problem with both players is the "might" and "could." And while those same caveats might well be attached to any rookie that they might draft, name a team that has too many cover players. This is a roster on which a rookie could come in and challenge for a job, although the team is expected to work free agency hard here, as well, in hopes of signing a veteran starter to play opposite Rolle.


The popular theory is that the team will either use the 10th pick in the first round on a running back or trade down and convert it into multiple players - the team has needs everywhere except at receiver, just close your eyes and point.

But what if Texas quarterback Vince Young is still on the board? Kurt Warner is aging and the only other quarterback on the roster is 2004 seventh-round pick John Navarre.

And what about the rapid rise of Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata? With Russell Davis being a free agent and Darnell Dockett undersize, this position is one of critical need.

And what if offensive D'Brickashaw Ferguson should unexpectedly slide all the way to 10? Offensive line is the team's top off-season priority.

Cornerback, where the team used its 2005 first-round pick on Antrel Rolle, continues to be a need, and at No. 10 the Cardinals might find Jimmy Williams of Virginia or Tye Hill of Clemson.

The Cardinals might also take a hard look at USC offensive tackle Winston Justice and Iowa outside linebacker Chad Greenway.

While what they do with their first-round pick is a crap shoot - guided by what they've done in free agency to that point and what the nine teams ahead of them leave them on the board - this much is certain: During the off-season the team must bolster its offensive line, upgrade running back, add a stud defensive tackle, get help at corner and outside linebacker, and perhaps find a quarterback to groom as their starter of the future.


After releasing wide receiver Isaac Bruce despite another delay of the free agency period, the Rams signed Bruce to a new three-year contract before the league year began.

Bruce was scheduled to be paid $8.1 million in 2006 in the last year of a seven-year contract he signed in 2000. That total included a $1.5 million roster bonus, $6.5 million base salary and $100,000 workout bonus. His cap charge was $10.04 million.

The two sides had been unable to come up with a deal, partly due to the fact that Bruce's agent, Jimmy Sexton, didn't make a firm proposal. The Rams had offered Bruce various forms of a three-year contract, but all included no more than $5 million this year.

The deal agreed to is worth $15 million, and pays him $6 million this year -- $1 million as a signing bonus and $5 million salary. The entire $6 million is guaranteed.

Said Sexton, "At the end of the day, he just wanted to stay in St. Louis," said Bruce's agent, Jimmy Sexton. "And he wanted to stay all along."

Bruce communicated that to new coach Scott Linehan.

"Isaac wanted to make sure Scott Linehan understood, because Linehan doesn't know Isaac," Sexton said. "He called Linehan just to let him know that he wanted to stay with the Rams."

Sexton acknowledged not making a proposal until Thursday. He said, "We never gave them a proposal until (Thursday). So that was our first stab. "They said, fine we'll do it. Once we knew we had a new labor agreement, it was easier to get something done. The Rams had more money under the new agreement, and more cap flexibility."

Since being released, Sexton said he had heard from seven teams that were interested in Bruce.

"I'm excited we have worked out a deal," Rams' head coach Scott Linehan said. "I'd been optimistic all along that we would be able to get this done. He epitomizes what it means to be a Ram. He has meant a lot to this organization both on and off the field and I'm excited that will continue."

--- The Rams moved quickly to sign defensive tackle La'Roi Glover after he was released by the Cowboys. Before going to Dallas, Glover played in New Orleans when Rams defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was the head coach.

Glover was released March 2 and was already visiting the Rams three days later after being contacted by Haslett the day after being released.

"I know he'll be great as a defensive coordinator," Glover said of Haslett. "His main focus is having an attacking, disciplined defense. I think it is a great fit."

Linehan agreed, saying, "He's going to fit a big part of what we're trying to get done here, add some veteran leadership, as well as his obvious playing ability on the defensive front. It is one of those things where if you can get somebody that can help you play at a higher level and also bring key leadership to your team and get things done the way we want to get them done, it's a big bonus. He's a great player. He still has some really good years left in him."

Talking more about Haslett, Glover said, "I know what type of coach he is, and I know his resume and what he brings to the table. (Assistant head coach/linebackers coach) Rick Venturi is another coach that was in New Orleans who is now here. I think they can put together schemes very well, they can motivate, they can do all of the things that great coaches do."

--- Glover played at San Diego State and was a teammate of Rams running back Marshall Faulk.

Asked if he surprised Faulk is still playing, Glover said, "He's being doing well for himself. He's kind of like a Superman kind of guy. He can do a lot of different things, and I am not surprised at all that he is still part of the organization."

--- The Rams' current top-three needs this offseason:

Tight end: Brandon Manumaleuna's salary increases to $1.325 million this season and there is no other proven depth on the roster. Under former coach Mike Martz, the tight end was often an after-thought in the passing game, but new coach Scott Linehan appears to have a different philosophy. With the moves for defense the Rams have already made in free agency, this becomes a need because a play-maker there would help the offense, especially in the red zone.

Linebacker: The two free agents signed last season, Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley, were disappointments. Claiborne has already been released, while Coakley might be back if he recovers from a broken leg, but it will probably be as a backup. The Rams moved quickly and signed Will Witherspoon, while surprising by saying he is ticketed to play middle linebacker. A strong-side linebacker is still needed.

Guard: Adam Timmerman is getting up in years and while there is some hope for Blaine Saipaia, he is an unknown. Claude Terrell played as a rookie last season, and needs an off-season in the weight room to build strength and stamina. But some competitive depth is necessary, as well as tackle behind Orlando Pace and Alex Barron.


The Rams haven't been a team that moves around a lot on draft day, but this year could be different. They did trade up to land running back Steven Jackson in the 2004 draft, and their precarious spot at No. 11 could yield some efforts to do it again.

Beating Dallas in the regular-season finale dropped the Rams from eighth to 11th, and that could be the difference in having a shot at linebacker A.J. Hawk or tight end Vernon Davis. Moving up to get either one is not out of the question.

While cornerback is not a glaring need, assuming Jerametrius Butler and Travis Fisher are healthy and Ron Bartell continues to progress, the best player available if the Rams stay at the No. 11 spot could be a corner.

But with so many needs on defense, depending on what happens in free agency, a trade down from 11 would make sense, so an extra pick or two could be acquired. Of course, that means finding a team that wants to trade up, something that is never automatic.


The Seahawks could be in the running for Pro Bowl Jets defensive end John Abraham, a franchise player on the trading block. The Seahawks are happing with starters Grant Wistrom and Bryce Fisher, but they lack depth at the position. Adding a player of Abraham's caliber would make a lot of sense as long as the move did not disrupt team chemistry.

Fisher and Wistrom are quality people. Fisher played well enough last season to command a starting job. Wistrom is making too much money to see his playing time diminished significantly. But finding a way to make such an arrangement work might be worth the trouble.

Last offseason, the Seahawks were interested in signing free-agent defensive end Derrick Burgess from Philadelphia. Team doctors nixed the deal over concerns about an Achilles' heel issue. Burgess turned in a monster year for Oakland. Seattle still wound up leading the NFL in sacks, but the end rotation wasn't as good as it could have been.

--- RB Shaun Alexander has big plans off the field after re-signing with the team before free agency. The former college marketing major is seeking endorsement deals and an unlikely off-field partnership with billionaire owner Paul Allen, the world's sixth-richest person.

"When your owner is one of the richest men in the world, it's really cool," Alexander said. "We can just sit down and say, 'OK, let's get together and let me explain to you some of my goals about things I think that could impact this city, and some of your goals where I could be a part of it.' "

Allen probably doesn't need any help in that regard, a fact that seemed lost on Alexander.

"Of course you could never give him money," Alexander said, "but I could give him a name and a face. Just partnering that way with Paul is going to be great."

--- On whether he can play the entire length of his new eight-year contract, Alexander said, "I think that will be totally a decision of, 'Do I want to?' I have talked to Barry Sanders about his career and I've talked to Marcus Allen about his career and everyone knows how close I am with Tony Dorsett and Ricky Watters. I talk to them and it's always about setting your plan and getting your strategy together for the next three years, four years, five years, six years. Seven years from now, I'll still be plugging out hits. I'm really a blessed man. I haven't really taken any of those hits that would have you limping around. For me to be 28 it's almost like I have a 26-year-old body because I didn't take the hits."

--- The Seahawks were paying close attention to reports out of Wisconsin that the Packers had reached a contract agreement with Seattle free safety Marquand Manuel before free agency. Manual signed with Green Bay over the weekend. Any such pre-arranged agreement would constitute tampering. And while such cases are difficult to prove, this one stood out because the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel went so far as to list contract terms: five years and $10 million.

Manuel's agent, Neil Schwartz, naturally denied the report. "You do your homework, you do your research," Schwartz told the Journal-Sentinel. "You look for teams that have needs and you try to connect the dots. ... "At this point, we told (the Seahawks) we were going to see what the market provides."

--- The Seahawks' current top-three offseason needs:

Speed rusher: The team's front four exceeded expectations in the pass-rush department, but the Seahawks could still use reinforcements at this position. Losing Fisher or Wistrom late last season could have proven catastrophic because even No. 3 DE Joe Tafoya was banged up.

Free safety: The Seahawks could use some more range at this position. Marquand Manuel (signed with Green Bay) was stronger against the run. Hamlin might not be able to return at full strength.

Outside linebacker: The linebacking corps is strong with MLB Lofa Tatupu and weak-side linebacker Leroy Hill coming off impressive rookie seasons. The team could use another young player on the strong side after releasing LB Jamie Sharper. LB D.D. Lewis will be a good option if he can stay healthy, but injuries have been a problem for him.


No one has any idea what the Seahawks are thinking in terms of possible players available in the first round. How can this be? Easy: The team doesn't have a pick until the 31st spot of the first round. That's later than the Seahawks have ever made their first-round pick.

We would expect the team to continue focusing on defense. President Tim Ruskell had great success on that side of the ball a year ago. Then again, he surprised everyone by using a first-round pick on a center. Ruskell came back with MLB Lofa Tatupu in the second round and OLB Leroy Hill in the third. Those picks laid a strong defensive foundation that should hold up for years to come.

Ruskell's philosophy is very different from the one Ted Thompson used during his years running the team's draft room. Thompson wanted big, strong bruisers on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerbacks had to be tall. Linebackers had to be extra stout. Defensive ends had to be big enough to play tackle if needed.

Ruskell, on the other hand, covets speed. He isn't afraid to take undersized guys with big hearts, a la Tatupu. Ohio State LB Bobby Carpenter seems to fit the description. He's a high-effort, high-character guy with good pass-rush skills.

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