Posted February 13, 2014

Free Agency Primer: NFC West

Arizona Cardinals, NFC West, NFL Free Agency Primer, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams
Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin, Rodger Saffold, and Michael Bennett will be key free agents in 2014. (

Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin, Rodger Saffold, and Michael Bennett will be key free agents in 2014. (Getty Images. Dansby: Christian Petersen/Boldin: Christian Petersen/Saffold: Thearon W. Henderson/Bennett: Otto Greule, Jr.)

In an NFL that becomes more and more competitive every year, the NFC West is the league’s nuclear roller derby — the division where every game is a huge battle for ultimate supremacy, and talent is plentiful across the board. The Seahawks survived this division of attrition to win the Super Bowl, but they had to get past the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, and the trailing Cardinals and Rams would be division champs in some other surroundings.

Now that all four teams are preparing to load up for the 2014 version of this particular go-round, let’s take a look at where each team stands with its own free agents.

Arizona Cardinals

• Key free agents:  CB Javier Arenas, SS Yeremiah Bell, CB Antoine Cason, ILB Karlos Dansby, K Jay Feely, WR Andre Roberts, RB Rashard Mendenhall, DE Frostee Rucker, OT Eric Winston

• Players Arizona needs back: Bell, Dansby, Roberts

Bell was exposed in coverage enough to put him on the bubble, but he’s a decent short-term stopgap. Dansby, however, combined with Daryl Washington to create perhaps the most mobile inside linebacker duo in the league — he’s without question Arizona’s most important free-agent consideration. Roberts is a talented receiver with the potential to be Larry Fitzgerald’s second banana.

• Players Arizona should let walk: Arenas, Mendenhall, Winston, Rucker, Cason, Feely

Winston took a lot of snaps for the Cardinals in 2013, but that wasn’t a good thing — he gave up a team-leading 58 total pressures, and the Cardinals clearly need to reinforce their offensive line. Arenas and Cason are league-average players who can be replaced over time — clearly, the front office has a knack for identifying and deploying secondary talent. Feely’s leg is not as powerful as it once was, so it would be easy to see Arizona looking elsewhere.

• Outlook: It’s clear that with a few tweaks, the Cardinals will be ready to challenge the Seahawks and 49ers for supremacy in the NFL’s toughest division. They have enough cap room to do some things thanks to Larry Fitzgerald’s restructure. Moreover, Bruce Arians is the right man to be this team’s head coach, and general manager Steve Keim is one of the league’s more able executives. The arrow is definitely pointing up in the Valley of the Sun.

San Francisco 49ers

Key free agents:  WR Anquan Boldin, S Donte Whitner, C Jonathan Goodwin, WR Mario Manningham, K Phil Dawson, CB Tarell Brown, RB Anthony Dixon, QB Colt McCoy, CB Eric Wright

• Players San Francisco needs back: Boldin, Whitner, Goodwin, Dawson, Brown, Wright

Boldin had yet another outstanding season for a new team — he’s getting up in age, but speed is not his game at this point. He’s a marvelous possession receiver who’s as tough in tight coverage as any other player in the league. Given the aggressive nature of NFC West secondaries, it would be very surprising if San Francisco made the same mistake the Baltimore Ravens made last year when they undervalued the veteran. Whitner isn’t quite the cover guy he once was, but he’s still aggressive enough (in a good way) in coverage to make a big difference, and he teamed especially well with rookie safety Eric Reid.

None of San Francisco’s free-agent cornerbacks are especially notable, but this franchise has had trouble grabbing legitimate starters in its last few drafts, so the best path to success may be to continue with the status quo and hope that the pass rush and linebacker play continues to shore things up. Goodwin is still a key cog in an offensive line that regressed to a degree in 2013, but remains one of the league’s best.

• Players San Francisco should let walk: Manningham, Dixon, McCoy

The 49ers were hoping for much more from Manningham, but multiple knee injuries have put his future in doubt. Dixon is a decent reserve player, but the team may be ready to unleash Marcus Lattimore in 2015. McCoy is a decent enough quarterback, but aside from his mobility, he doesn’t really fit the team’s current quarterback template.

• Outlook: Head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke have done an amazing job in creating a culture of success over the last three seasons. The question is when and whether the franchise will start paying the price for two very iffy drafts. The 49ers enjoyed historic performances from a lot of their defensive players, but the passing game fell sharply without receiver Michael Crabtree, and depth overall starts to look like a concern.  

BURKE: Potential salary cap casualties

St. Louis Rams

• Key free agents:  QB Kellen Clemens, OL Rodger Saffold, G Chris Williams, LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, LB Will Witherspoon,

• Players St. Louis needs back: Saffold, Williams

In St. Louis’ revolving-door offensive line, Saffold and Williams were fairly reliable, at least — Saffold held it down at three positions, and Williams was the only Rams lineman to start all 16 games. They should be relatively low-cost options for the near future as the team works to improve other positions of priority.

• Players St. Louis should let walk: Clemens, Witherspoon, Dunbar

Given Sam Bradford’s injury history, the Rams will either move on and find a younger quarterback, or try it one more time. Either way, a better backup quarterback will be required — the Rams are too close to contention to allow games to get away from them via the game’s most important position. Witherspoon and Dunbar are easily replaceable cogs, especially given the way head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead develop defensive talent.

• Outlook: Like the Cardinals, the Rams are trying to find a way to kick it up a notch in a brutal division. And because they’re so solid in so many other areas, the decision made at quarterback with this team could very well turn the NFC West’s balance of power sooner than later.

Seattle Seahawks

• Key free agents:  WR Golden Tate, DE Michael Bennett, K Stephen Hauschka, DT Tony McDaniel, DT Clinton McDonald, CB Walter Thurmond, QB Tarvaris Jackson, OLB O’Brien Schofield, FB Michael Robinson, OT Breno Giacomini, OL Paul McQuistan

• Players Seattle needs back: Tate, Bennett, Hauschka, McDaniel, McDonald, Jackson, Robinson, Thurmond, Schofield

Tate and Bennett are known priorities for the Seahawks this offseason — Tate as the speed slot guy and return man who adds a great deal to the passing game, and Bennett as the one-year player who far exceeded everyone’s expectations. Thought to be a swing tackle by head coach Pete Carroll at first, Bennett became a major inside/outside force in the NFL’s best defense. McDaniel and McDonald were valuable reserve players inside, and their talents are perfectly suited to the schemes set up by head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Jackson is an ideal backup to Russell Wilson — comfortable in his role and respected by everyone in the locker room. Robinson has those same qualifications, and he provides veteran leadership for a very young team. Thurmond is good enough to play outside corner in this defense if he can stay healthy — the question is whether some other team will come calling with more money than Seattle is willing to give up.

• Players Seattle should let walk: Giacomini, McQuistan

Both Giacomini and McQuistan have been tough guys with a lot of starts, but Seattle’s offensive line has underperformed over the last few seasons, with the exception of center Max Unger and left tackle Russell Okung. They now need better players in the other spots if they wish to defend their Super Bowl title with everything they’ve got.

• Outlook: Carroll and general manager John Schneider have established one of the most appealing environments in the NFL — a winning franchise with top-level facilities in which players are encouraged to be themselves, even if that works to the team’s detriment at times. As long as the discipline holds out and Seattle is able to alleviate some short-term salary cap concerns, this is a team built to ride the high wave for a good long time.

More divisional free agency primers


It will be interesting to see what happens with Saffold.  His injury history complicates calculating his value.  I know the Rams want him back, but they aren't going to tag him and they aren't going to break the bank for him.  Rams beat writer Jim Thomas seems to think that there will be a lot of interest in Saffold and that he will sign with another team.  I agree with that.


49ers will let Goodwin, Wright, James, Manningham and Brown go. Whitner and Dixon are on the bubble.


Haven't you Hawk fans learned you (or anybody else) can not predict what the great braintrust of Carroll/Schneider will do ? All we know for sure is that wise moves will be made and the Hawks will be even better next year. This team has never lost a player that wasn't replaced by a better one. There is no reason that will change now. Party on and Go Seahawks !!!


"Players Seattle needs back: Tate, Bennett, Hauschka, McDaniel, McDonald, Jackson, Robinson, Thurmond, Schofield"

As much as I'd like to have all those guys back, it's not gonna happen. The Seahawks are in a pretty tight salary cap situation before getting into free agency, so it will take some difficult cuts along with letting a few players walk to stay financially secure. Brian Nemhauser of predicted that the Hawks would cut Rice, Clemons, and Bryant to clear up $20.2 million in cap space next year (and a total of $40.1 million through 2016). Using the Salary Cap Calculator at and keeping these cuts in mind, the Hawks can resign Bennett, Hauschka, Jackson, Schofield, Maragos, Jeanpierre, and apply a 2nd round tender to Baldwin, along with extending Earl Thomas to a long term deal. This leaves about $4.7 million in 2014 cap space, as well as a few question marks.

That doesn't include an extension for Sherman, so if that were to happen this offseason, some changes would have to be made. As for Tate, McDaniel, McDonald, and Thurmond, each was a tremendous value this season but will command too much on the open market. The team loves Tate, but it makes more sense to let him go considering Baldwin is a cheaper option and Harvin's skill set is similar to Tate's. Mike Rob is great, but I think the team is ready to move on with the cheaper option in Coleman at FB.

The Hawks are not in dire straits financially as some would have you believe, but some tough decisions will have to be made. Their defensive personnel might not be as historically good next season, but the young offense will most likely improve.


Did you really mean "this franchise has had trouble grabbing legitimate starters in its last few drafts"? In the last "few," say, the three in the Harbaugh era, there have been: Aldon Smith (Pro Bowl), Colin Kaepernick (budding superstar), Bruce Miller (Pro Bowl), and Eric Reid (Pro Bowl). Chris Culliver (torn ACL) was expected to start this year and is expected to start next year. UDFA Ian Williams won the starting NT job this year before breaking his ankle. Vance McDonald is the No. 2 TE behind superstar Vernon Davis, so "starts" depending on the opening offensive set.

2012 was a washout draft, but LaMichael James is an impact player as a returner and Joe Looney will likely duke it out with UDFA Daniel Kilgore (2011 draft) to take over at C this year. A large number of players from 2011-13 are major contributors who can't crack the starting lineup because of the outstanding depth of the roster. Witness CB Marcus Cooper, who started all year and made plays all year for KC after the numbers crunch forced the Niners to expose him to the waiver process. These players include Kendall Hunter, Corey Lemonier (who has truly earned a job), and Quinton Patton, who looks clutch and dangerous. And that's without counting Marcus Lattimore and Tank Carradine, who redshirted by design and may end up being flat-out steals - so say many, many draft prognosticators.

So what I'm saying is your comment makes absolutely no sense and reveals a lack of research and understanding of the franchise you're writing about. If you looked at the Niners' cap numbers, you would not expect them to re-sign all of Whitner, Brown, and Wright - and you didn't even mention the very likely cutting of Carlos Rogers simply for cap purposes as they try to work out extensions for Kaep, Iupati, Aldon, and Crabtree. They are likely to draft a CB high, even with Culliver coming back and even if they re-sign Wright at a bargain price. 

But your assessment of them as having two "very iffy" drafts is simply hilarious. They have filled every need they have targeted in the draft except wide receiver, and I contend that they may have even done that if they give Patton a chance. And with Harbaugh supposedly taking more control of the offense, we may see just that happen. They lost S Goldson and got S Reid, and got better. They will likely have 6 picks in the first 3 rounds, and 13 overall, so are highly likely to address the other needs they'll target (WR, CB, likely G-C, S, MLB depth).

And by the way, you called Arizona's fine ILB tandem perhaps the league's most "mobile"? At least you didn't call them the best, with Niner draftees Willis and Bowman manning the middle. But seriously, you need to pay much closer attention to teams you write about. You got the Niners wrong.


"None of San Francisco’s free-agent cornerbacks are especially notable, but this franchise has had trouble grabbing legitimate starters in its last few drafts"

That's an overreach to say the least. 2012 was a wasted draft. Other than that Baalke has been pretty stellar . . . Since 2010 (the last few drafts) Baalke has drafted 8 starters including a franchise QB, a couple of All-Pro LB's and a Pro-Bowl guard and safety.  All on a roster that was pretty strong to begin with.


Ok, the Niners don't need or want Goodwin, or Wright back. Niners plan on replacing him with a younger Kilgore anyways. Wright was a replaced in playoffs by the well-traveled Cox, so not way he comes back. Disappointment. Whitner is a liability in coverage, so not sure they won't try upgrading in draft with one of there five pick in first 4 rounds. Brown was beaten out by Brock in second half of year. Huge upgrade. The only must have backs, are Boldin, and Dawson. They can get better everywhere else. Brown only comes back at a reasonable price and may not start depending on how Culliver advances.


@ballhawk2925  Of that list, I'd say that Bennett is the only "has to have." Tate is tough to replace and I sure like having T-Jack to fall back on (Russell has yet to miss any time, but with less than optimal protection it's a matter of time before he does), but as for the rest:

Hauschka: The Hawks are unlikely to confuse a career year with what they can plan on Hauschka giving them: A reliable PK inside of 50 yds who will put most KOs in the end zone. He is not the only kicker like this out there.

McDaniel, McDonald: It's practically a hobby of Schneider's to find value at interior DL. There's no point in overpaying for McDaniel and McDonald.

Robinson: His return helped, but no one says that he's a Pro Bowler any more. If the Seahawks believe that Coleman will develop, it's hard to believe that they'll invest heavily in the position.

Thurmond: Let's get real. Walter offers great value and someone will pay him to start. The Seahawks won't. Of all FAs, he is the least likely to return.

Schofield: I don't know why he is on Farrar's list.

Note on Tate: This is a tough year to be a FA WR. Unless something goes out of whack, the depth in the WR draft and FA classes is likely to depress Tate's price. I believe that the Hawks will resign him unless they feel like they just can't because of the dynamic you outline above.


@ballhawk2925 Didn't Mike Rob resign for the league minimum?  At his age that might be as good as it gets for him and a great deal for seattle


@TwentyHBCurlXup  Which All Pro LBs has he DRAFTED? Aldon Smith. That's it. He wasn't the GM for Willis or Bowman and signed Brooks as a FA. He's done a great job for sure, but his drafts the last 2 years weren't the best. 


@SpencerForHire The way they were setup, he did the drafting and the GM was cap mngr.and contract negotiator. So yes, he did draft those All Pros.