Around NFC West: Free agency hits full swing

Taking a look inside the camps of the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC West as free agency hits full swing.


Building quality depth is the Cardinals' off-season theme under new coach Ken Whisenhunt. That is necessary in part because they've whiffed on so many recent second-day draft picks.

They have only one starter chosen on the second day in the past three drafts (center Nick Leckey, sixth round, 2004). Just this week they parted company with two second-day picks from their 2004 draft class: center Alex Stepanovich (fourth round, who took every snap as a rookie starter and then fell off the board due in part to lingering injuries) and quarterback John Navarre (seventh round, who has been the No. 3 man most of his career, although he was given a start as a rookie).

"We already have components in place and we're not looking for that marquee free agent," Whisenhunt said. "Through free agency and then the draft we'll have everything in place. It's about finding a quality group that will fit this system."

The Cardinals are roughly $32 million under the $109 million NFL salary cap, and well positioned to make a move in free agency.

They need a starting left tackle, cornerback, linebacker, backup running back, No. 3 quarterback and depth on both lines. Whisenhunt says some of those needs may be addressed by current players.

Left tackle Leonard Davis wasn't tagged as a franchise player, and won't return after agreeing to a contract with Dallas on the second day of free agency.

The team really is on the hunt, though, for role players who can challenge for a starting job and be available to step in with little drop-off in the event of injuries. Lacking those depth players has been one of the Cardinals' greatest liabilities for years.

Whisenhunt said the team is likely to sign four to eight free agents. They would be likely to spend $15 million to $20 million of their cap cushion.

"This whole process is not all done in the first weekend," said Rod Graves, Cardinals Vice President of Operation. "We would like to be the first visit or an early visit for veterans, and hopefully we would be their last visit. We're going to be aggressive like we have been in recent years, and we will also see what the market dictates as time goes on. We've always seen opportunities as late as the summer to improve the roster.

"Our approach to free agency and the management of our team in general is to be aggressive, but also be disciplined in the decisions we make. In many cases, you'll see us make decisions that we feel are smart ones, if not necessarily flashy ones."

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Ken Whisenhunt shared his view of the draft during the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

"You always want to evaluate the draft based not on need, but based on the draft itself," Whisenhunt said. "If you go into the whole process knowing you're going to overall evaluate the draft class, you're in a better position to pick the best player."

Graves said Whisenhunt's view jibes with what he has attempted to implement in recent drafts. The record shows, however, that while the Cardinals have had good success picking in the opening three rounds, their second-day picks have not panned out.

"One of the things that has changed is we've become a team more focused on drafting the best player available as opposed to drafting on need," Graves said. "I think that is an emphasis that has proven to be successful.

"You do have to consider your roster, and we have made adjustments along the way based on the strength of our roster and certain positions. And then you'll just go to the next guy in that process." ***** ***** *****

Although University of Phoenix Stadium was sold out for every Cardinals game in the debut season and is well on its way to being sold out for 2007, the Cardinals continue to beat the bushes across Arizona to build support.

Players, team mascot Big Red, cheerleaders and front office personnel are set for the fourth annual "Cardinals Caravan Tour" to build fan relationships, visit their radio network affiliates, and have a presence in community activities in Arizona during March.

The itinerary includes Yuma on March 6 (WR Micheal Spurlock and DT Gabe Watson will participate in a kids camp and host two meet and greet sessions, including one at the Marine Corps Air Station for military personnel); Show Low on March 9, Flagstaff on March 14, and Prescott and Sedona on March 16-17.

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--- C Al Johnson, a free agent from Dallas, signed a four-year deal with Arizona. He had also received strong interest from Tampa Bay. Coach Ken Whisenhunt said Johnson will compete with Nick Leckey for the starting job.
--- RB Marcel Shipp, the team rushing leader three of the past five years primarily as a backup, signed a three-year deal to stay in Arizona. He is a serviceable banger but lacks breakaway speed.
--- S Hanik Milligan signed a three-year deal to stay in Arizona. He has a track record as one of the league's better special teams players -- he led the Cardinals in special-teams tackles -- and is worth retaining.
--- C Nick Leckey, a restricted free agent, received a $1.3 million tender offer, allowing the team to retain his rights for 2007. He started the final 11 games, including the closing run in which the team won four of its final seven games and RB Edgerrin James saved a 1,000-yard rushing season despite going three months before his first 100-yard game.
--- QB John Navarre, a restricted free agent chosen in the seventh round in 2004, was not given a tender offer by the Cardinals and becomes unrestricted. He has been the No. 3 QB most of his career, although former coach Dennis Green was high on him and gave him a start late in his rookie year. Navarre might have finished 2004 as the starter had he not suffered a broken bone in his hand in that first start at Detroit. The Cardinals now will search for a No. 3 behind Matt Leinart and Kurt Warner.
--- C Alex Stepanovich, a restricted free agent chosen in the fourth round in 2004, was not given a tender offer by the Cardinals and becomes unrestricted. He took every snap starting every game as a rookie in 2004 and then fell off the board, due in large part to a never-ending series of injuries. He appeared in nine games in 2005 and five in 2006.


It wasn't that surprising, but it was still emotional when the Rams decided to part ways with guard Adam Timmerman.

Timmerman signed with the team early in the 1999 free-agent period and was a large part of the team's turnaround that led to a Super Bowl appearance that season. He never missed a game from that season until last year when injured ribs snapped an overall 184-game streak of consecutive games.

His absence led to Richie Incognito to playing Timmerman's right guard spot, and the youth of Incognito and his ability led the Rams to elect not to pay Timmerman a $200,000 roster bonus. He was also due $2.2 million in salary.

His release saved the Rams $1.3 million against the salary cap this season.

Said coach Scott Linehan, "I told Adam we've just got to make a move with some of these players that were starting to emerge, and that at this point in his career he probably doesn't deserve to be a backup. Our organization is indebted to him for his years of service. He helped a great offense. Got to a couple Super Bowls. He had a great run with the Rams."

Timmerman still wants to play and believe he can do so at a high level.

"It still doesn't make a lot of sense to me," he said of being released. "But I guess it doesn't have to. I would've liked the opportunity to compete for a job, but that's obviously not in the cards."

Timmerman said he never felt totally comfortable after Linehan arrived last year.

"I didn't feel that I was somebody they put much stock in, or that they cared that much about here," Timmerman said. "I don't know (why). It wasn't as if I didn't try to buy into the system."

However, Linehan didn't agree with Timmerman's assessment.

"If that was the case, he wouldn't have started 13 games," the coach said. "He did a very admirable job for us this year. This is the tough part of the business when you get guys that are at the end of their career. Very few get to go out like John Elway did."

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The Rams acquired DE James Hall from the Lions for a fifth-round pick in this year's draft. During the 2006 season, the Rams acquired a fifth-round pick from Buffalo for defensive end Anthony Hargrove. That pick will be 11th in the round. The Rams send their own pick, 17th in the round, to Detroit.

Hall played just seven games last season because of a shoulder injury and had five sacks. He won't be totally healthy until training, so his acquisition is a minor risk with Hall 30 years old. The Rams had to pay a $500,000 roster bonus to Hall, and his 2007 salary is $2.75 million.

Last season, the Rams got only two sacks from their defensive right ends.

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lthough it's a long shot that he will play this season, the Rams plan to pay RB Marshall Faulk a $225,000 roster bonus next week.

Faulk spent the 2006 season on reserve/physically unable to perform and was paid $1 million. He admittedly did little rehab after August reconstructive knee surgery because of his analyst job with NFL Network.

But Faulk isn't ready to announce his retirement, and the Rams will let Faulk decide at his own pace, even though coach Scott Linehan said the team is moving on from Faulk and said he hasn't spoke to him since before last year's spring minicamp.

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Patriots LB Tully Banta-Cain visited the Rams on the first day of free agency. Banta-Cain has ability as a pass rusher, and the Rams envision him as their "buck" end. On passing downs last season, LB Raonall Smith played that position, moving around as an end or linebacker.

Agent James Sims said of Banta-Cain's interest in the Rams, "They would bring out the best in Tully and allow him to do what he does best, use his versatility as a 4-3 end, or as a 3-4 linebacker. They like his versatility and they pose a great opportunity for him, which is very important to Tully in addition to a potential financial package. He's been biding his time in New England."

But Banta-Cain opted to sign instead with the 49ers, will vie for a starting position.

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The Rams made an offer to free-agent WR Kevin Curtis, who visited Minnesota Friday and was expected to head to Detroit from there.

"I'm not optimistic, but I also don't know that it isn't possible," coach Scott Linehan said. "I know Kevin's looking for a starting job."

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Tennessee free agent WR Drew Bennett visited the Rams on the first day of free agency, and quickly signed a six-year, $30 million deal. It includes a reported $10 million in guaranteed money, with a $7.5 million signing bonus.

Bennett will become the Rams' No. 3 receiver behind Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.

"This is just a great addition to our (receiving) corps," Rams coach Scott Linehan said. "He's versatile, but you start with his size."


The Seahawks learned some hard lessons in free agency a year ago.

They used the transition tag on Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson in hopes of spurring talks toward a long-term deal. The team didn't want a repeat of the franchise-player dances performed with Walter Jones and Shaun Alexander. But in using the transition tag on Hutchinson, the Seahawks sent an unintentional insult that drove the player and his agent to sign a virtually unmatchable offer sheet with Minnesota.

Hutchinson's departure robbed the offensive line of continuity. It deprived the locker room of a valued leader. And it pretty much killed the transition tag as a viable option for NFL teams.

The Seahawks protected themselves this offseason by extending high tenders to restricted free agents Sean Locklear, D.J. Hackett and Jordan Babineaux. Any team signing Locklear would have to venture a first-round pick. Hackett and Babineaux would fetch second-round choices.

The high tenders made sense given that Seattle had $21 million in cap space. The team invested $4.15 million of that in its three major tenders. Linebacker Niko Koutouvides (fourth round) and defensive tackle Craig Terrill (sixth round) received minimum tenders for $850,000.

Seattle also used the franchise tag, not the transition tag, in retaining rights to clutch kicker Josh Brown. Brown made four game-winning kicks in the final minute of games last season. He wants to remain a Seahawk, by all indications, and the team wants to make that happen.

"We were getting up against the edge and we didn't want to lose him," Seahawks president Tim Ruskell said in explaining why the franchise tag was used. "So, we'll continue to talk. I feel very confident we'll get a deal done."

Brown is counting only $2.078 million against the $109 million cap. The Seahawks could easily carry him at that price, and a new deal wouldn't cost a whole lot more in terms of per-year cap space.

Unlike past seasons, the Seahawks entered this free-agent period without major deals looming. Jones, Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck are signed for the long term, as are other key players.

And without a first-round choice this season, the team will have additional cap room to invest in a few strategically targeted free agents. Chargers guard Kris Dielman was the first player on the Seahawks' list, but he re-signed with San Diego on Saturday. The team then went heavily after Patrick Kerney, who agreed to a deal Monday. Seattle is also reportedly in a bidding war with Denver for former Patriots tight end Daniel Graham.

"We're going to be aggressive again," Ruskell said. "You're not going to see 10 high-dollar guys, but we are going to be strategic and help this football team."

The Seahawks could still use help at guard, defensive tackle, safety and tight end. The team is also expected to explore trade options for receiver Darrell Jackson, who hasn't always been happy with his contract situation.

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The Seahawks are in no hurry to trade receiver Darrell Jackson, but the team does plan to explore its options during the coming weeks, according to published reports.

Jackson led the Seahawks in receptions last season. He was leading the league in touchdown catches before suffering a season-ending toe injury. He returned for part of the playoffs but the toe was clearly bothering him.

Jackson's toe is expected to be fine in time for training camp. At 28, he could conceivably have a few more strong seasons remaining. But the Seahawks plan to seek value for him because their relationship with the player is a bit strained. The team has protected itself by acquiring Deion Branch and Nate Burleson, players the team targeted as long-term starters.

Burleson struggled some in his first season, but the team has options at the position. Hackett was at times the team's best receiver last season. His role figures to expand. Burleson's role figures to expand as he becomes more comfortable with the offense. The same goes for Branch, who arrived one game into the season and has yet to go through training camp with the team.

Jackson has complained to the team about his contract, accusing the Seahawks' former management of reneging on promises. Current management has refused to make good on the as-yet-unknown promises. There is also distrust between team and player stemming from a 2005 knee injury. Jackson went outside the organization for a second opinion. His doctor discovered additional damage and Jackson wound up undergoing surgery.

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Defensive coordinator John Marshall is looking forward to working with Jim Mora, the team's newly hired assistant head coach/secondary. Some coordinators might be uncomfortable welcoming a recently fired head coach onto the staff, but Marshall and Mora worked well together in San Francisco. The 49ers ranked No. 1 in total defense back in 1997 with Marshall and Mora in their current roles.

"The thing I like about Jim, he's enthusiastic," Marshall said. "His expectations are always high. He never allows a player to bring down his expectations of what they should be doing and how they should be producing. And I love that."

The team might make a few schematic tweaks given Mora's experiences as a coordinator and head coach. "That is what we are kicking around right now," Marshall said. "He brings a different slant, which any new coach would bring. I just thank God we got him."

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The Seahawks brought Chargers guard Kris Dielman to Seattle for a visit on the first day of free agency, but he chose to re-sign with San Diego the following day.

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Tight end Jerramy Stevens became a free agent after the Seahawks made no effort to re-sign him. There's still a chance Stevens could return to the team, but he'll test the market first. Seattle has interest in free-agent tight end Daniel Graham, but the former New England starter will apparently make one or more visits elsewhere before coming to Seattle. The Seahawks re-signed Will Heller as a backup at the position. Leonard Stephens and Bennie Joppru provide two more options.

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Free safety Ken Hamlin hit the market when free agency began, raising questions about the Seahawks' plans at the position. Strong safety Michael Boulware is coming off a poor season. Mike Green, a free-agent addition in 2006, is coming off serious foot surgery. There aren't many high-profile safeties available in free agency. Deon Grant, formerly of the Jaguars, is one potential option. The Seahawks might need to address the position in the draft even if they do find a free agent or re-sign Hamlin down the line.

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Mora never was a candidate to become head coach of the Chargers, according to Ruskell. Initial reports from San Diego suggested the Chargers had received permission to speak with Mora about the opening, but Ruskell said that never happened.

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DE Patrick Kerney has agreed to a six-year, $39.5 million contract with the Seahawks that includes $19.5 million in guaranteed money. Kerney, 30, has 58 career sacks, but played in just nine games last season due to a torn right pectoral muscle.

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