Changes Abound In The NFC West

Many 49ers fans are frustrated that the team hasn't done a whole lot so far in free agency. People want the big splash signing, the perennial Pro-Bowler who will turn around the fortunes of a franchise that, let's face it, hasn't been very good at all these past few years.

It simply isn't general manager Scot McCloughan's philosophy though. He believes in rewarding the team's own players first and foremost and replenishing talent through the draft. When an upgrade can be found at the right place – such as QB David Carr whom the team thinks would be an ideal backup to starter Alex Smith – the 49ers will pursue it. If not, they won't.

That doesn't mean however that it's time for despair. Most teams – including the entire NFC West – have taken a conservative approach to free agency in this uncapped year. Almost all of the desirable talent is in the "restricted" category and teams just aren't going to give up top draft picks and truckloads of money to chase after guys. With the incumbent teams having the right to match any offer, interested suitors would have to pay far more than market value for the guys they want, and that's just not smart business. And who wants to give up a first or second round pick on a draft this deep? Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Before you decide to storm the 49ers offices with pitchforks and torches, let's take a look at the moves the rest of the division has made so far. Or haven't made, to be more accurate.

The two-time defending NFC West Champion Arizona Cardinals are in a state of flux. Kurt Warner, their Hall-of-Fame bound quarterback, has retired. One of his main targets, wideout Anquan Boldin, a guy who's terrorized the 49ers secondary for years, finally got his wish and was traded to Baltimore. The defense lost two of their biggest playmakers as LB Karlos Dansby and S Antrel Rolle left for greener pastures in free agency.

Those are just the big name guys. The Cardinals also said goodbye to Jerheme Urban, a valuable reserve receiver, and have a half dozen unrestricted free agents who played valuable roles last season searching for offers in OT Mike Gandy, LB Chike Okeafor, K Neil Rackers, DE Bryan Robinson, FB Dan Kreider, and backup QB Brian St. Pierre. Throw in the retirement of DE Bertrand Berry and the restricted free agent status of WR Steve Breaston, C Lyle Sendlein, G Deuce Lutui, and DT Gabe Watson, and you can see why the Cardinals roster could look radically different next season.

Arizona did plug the hole created by Rolle's departure by trading for S Kerry Rhodes from the New York Jets, and they signed away G Rex Hadnot from the Cleveland Browns, but clearly they have a lot of work to do to replace all the vets they've lost or are on the verge of losing. The Cardinals are reportedly trying to fill Dansby's vacancy with a couple of linebackers – Larry Foote and Joey Porter – that head coach Ken Whisenhunt knows well from his Pittsburgh days, but haven't signed either yet.

The bigger question, in my mind, is why they haven't aggressively gone after Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is clearly available for the right price. McNabb has thrived in an offense similar to the one Whisenhunt employs and he already makes his off-season home in Arizona. It would, from my perceptive, be an ideal fit, but perhaps Philadelphia's asking price is too high. One thing's for sure: the Cardinals' management could try to spin their tumultuous off-season as "retooling, not rebuilding" all they want, but you can't just replace a franchise quarterback like Warner with a guy like Matt Leinart, who's been a major disappointment so far in his career, without experiencing a major drop off.

While the Cardinals roster is undergoing a major overhaul, the previous bullies of the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks, have made their biggest moves in the front office. Gone are head coach Jim Mora Jr., and general manager Tim Ruskell, who put together the roster of the team that represented the NFC in Super Bowl XL. Ruskell has been replaced by John Schneider and Mora by Pete Carroll, who famously turned a moribund USC program back into a national powerhouse at the college level. NFL teams have been clamoring for Carroll's services for years – despite his checkered career as coach of the New England Patriots and New York Jets – but no one had been able to get him to leave the sunshine of Los Angeles until Seattle owner Paul Allen made Carroll an offer he couldn't refuse. Being the co-founder of Microsoft has its advantages, I suppose.

Surprisingly, Carroll hasn't yet taken advantage of Allen's deep pockets in free agency. The Seahawks haven't pursued any of the big name free agents and the tandem of Carroll and Schneider may have indeed decided that Seattle's aging and injury-prone roster needs to be completely blown up and rebuilt through the draft. The Seahawks are well poised to do just that with the 6th and 14th picks in the draft and there is a number of directions they can go with them, like taking Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen (starting QB Matt Hasselbeck is 34), Oklahoma State OT Russell Okung to replaced Walter Jones, who retired, or an explosive running back like Clemson's C.J. Spiller to revive their pedestrian running game. One move I don't see Seattle making is giving up either of those first rounders for Denver's restricted free agent WR Brandon Marshall.

Aside from the Jones, who, like Warner will be in Canton someday, the Seahawks have also lost starting receiver Nate Burleson, and are likely to move on without unrestricted free agent DE Cory Redding, FB Justin Griffith, CB Ken Lucas, and S Lawyer Milloy. A trio of starters, G Rob Sims, C Chris Spencer, and DE Darryl Tapp have been tendered as restricted free agents, while K Olindo Mare, who Mora called out after a loss last season, was franchised.

Naturally, the one signing Seattle has made so far was of a player that the 49ers coveted, TE Chris Baker, formerly of the Patriots. Baker is primarily a blocking specialist, but caught 14 passes last season and had a career-high 41 receptions with the Jets in 2007. He figures to be a backup for TE John Carlson and perhaps the Seahawks will use more two tight end sets after losing Griffith.

Speaking of losing, the St. Louis Rams (yes that was a cheap shot) are another team that has been quiet thus far in free agency, although in their case that's not unexpected. Head coach Steve Spagnuolo is a smart guy and he knows that his roster has so many holes and is so bereft of talent; that it really makes no sense to chase after high priced veterans in the hope of some miraculous quick fix. Rebuilding this mess of a team will take time and the only way to do it is through the draft and with below-the-radar young veterans who just didn't fit in at their first NFL stops for whatever reason.

The Rams have a slew of unrestricted free agents, including both starting DEs Leonard Little and James Hall, TE Randy McMichael, and LB Paris Lenon. CB Jonathan Wade was picked up by another cellar-dweller, the Detroit Lions. Both of their safeties, Craig Dahl and O.J. Atogwe (whom the 49ers are rumored to be interested in) are restricted free agents, along with OT Alex Barron, G Mark Setterstrom, and DT Clifton Ryan.

They have acquired a few guys, all of whom have connections to the coach. DT Fred Robbins was brought in to collapse the pocket and occupy blockers like he did for the champion New York Giants in 2007, where Spagnuolo was his defensive coordinator. C-G Hank Fraley was signed for depth along the interior offensive line and QB A.J. Feeley might get a few stopgap starts under center until rookie Sam Bradford is deemed ready – if indeed the Rams select the signal caller from Oklahoma with the number one overall pick as many expect. Fraley and Feeley were both on Eagles teams that Spagnuolo coached on.

Again, the NFC West is there for the taking for the 49ers. For now we wait to see how they move around their pieces in the chess game of free agency, and next month comes the draft. No matter what happens between now and training camp, they should enter the 2010 as prohibitive favorites to win their division, but it wouldn't hurt to make a few tweaks between now and then.


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