Archive for December, 2013

Why I wish 2014 was a better draft for the D-line

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

One of the main reasons this team has taken such a major step forward this year is the improvement of the pass rush.

An eight-sack outing against Green Bay inflated the 2012 stats. Seattle wasn’t pressuring the quarterback enough, simple as that. Bruce Irvin had a niche role, but the entire pass rush was dependant on Chris Clemons.

That was too much responsibility for any man not named J.J. Watt.

Clemons’ ACL injury and age (he’s 33 next October) put a lot of things into perspective.

It’s no surprise that the Seahawks attacked this area and found more options. Clemons and Irvin are still there, but the additions of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennet cannot be overstated.

They’ve turned a one dimensional pass rush into a monster.

Bennett in particular has been a crucial signing. He’s given the Seahawks something they haven’t had under Pete Carroll to date — a player who can rush from all angles, including the interior. He doesn’t just rely on speed. He can match up to any team, any offensive line in the league and get it done.

While all the focus has been on Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas — make no mistake — Bennett is just as much a MVP for this defense.

He’s also a luxury. He signed a one-year deal quite foreign to the NFL. Not many top free agents can’t find a market and are willing to play on a ‘prove it’ contract like this. Bennett took a gamble and it’s paid off.

He proved it. And now he will get paid.

Now it’s going to be incredibly difficult to keep him beyond 2013. Not unless you want to risk losing one of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Golden Tate — three players I’d expect to get extensions in the off-season.

Bennett is just as much of a priority, but could be the hardest to keep. Sherman and Thomas aren’t going anywhere. Period. They will be paid this off-season. 100% guaranteed. It’s about rewarding the guys that helped turn this around from the start. Tate comes into that category too — and I suspect they’ll want to maintain some consistency with Russell Wilson.

If those three re-sign it’ll take one hell of a creative strategy to get another big contract in there, twelve months before Russell Wilson cashes in.

In an ideal world there’d be a solution (and cheaper replacement) in the draft. There may well be a gem hidden away somewhere that we don’t know about. Bennett himself was an UDFA, after all.

But those gems are hard to identify without thoroughly researching multiple college conferences.

Even when you think you’ve found a prospect who would work, it’s hard to tell whether they’ve got ‘it’.

There aren’t many guys in the NFL who do what Michael Bennett does, with his range of pass rushing skills, technique and raw athleticism. We wondered a year ago whether Datone Jones could do this role in Seattle. He’s an athlete with all the size, speed and college production you look for.

He has just 3.5 sacks in Green Bay this year. He’s not been awful, but he hasn’t been anything like Bennett.

Yet we have to look at what’s out there and try again, just like the team will be out there looking for that guy who might just save them a small fortune.

Right now, I’m struggling to find players that could be early picks for Seattle and fit the bill.

Florida’s Dominique Easley would’ve made sense, but his injury history is a major red flag. Ra’Shede Hageman at Minnesota has the upside and physical ability to ‘be a Bennett’ but his upside will likely secure a fairly high grade. Missouri’s Kony Ealy has the same kind of size, and is someone I’m going to spend some time looking at this week. Not many people see him as a round 1/2 guy though.

If anyone else has any suggestions, I’m all ears…

It won’t just be about replacing Bennett either. The Seahawks can’t re-sign every player on the roster. Not with the way they’re playing right now. Sherman and Thomas will be protected. Others will, sadly move on.

The likes of Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant, Clemons and Avril will eventually need to be replaced with cheaper alternatives. Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald — two impact players this year — are free agents.

After taking such a major step forward in 2013, we don’t want to see the defensive line go back to the dark days of relying on one guy to get it done. Or worse…

We also shouldn’t write off the front office and their ability to find value late in the draft. After all, they found a franchise quarterback and a shutdown corner with 3rd and 5th round picks respectively. They plucked McDaniel and McDonald from obscurity and had the foresight to do the deals with Avril and Bennett.

But this is going to be a major challenge for the Seahawks if they really do want to ‘win forever’.

One to keep an eye on could be Benson Mayowa. He’s been stashed and protected as a redshirt player this year, only featuring in the first game or two due to injuries. He flashed enough in pre-season to warrant some time to grow and he could blossom into a productive pass rusher.

They’ll also need to go and bring in some proven talent, which made me consider the option of trading up in 2014.

If maintaining the pass rush is a priority by May next year, do you do what it takes to keep it rolling?

A few mocks, including Todd McShay’s, have Jadeveon Clowney dropping a little. I think it’s unlikely he falls beyond the top two, but let’s run with this for a moment.

Would you move up to grab a player like that? Knowing he has just about the most upside you could wish to have from a defensive lineman? Whatever you want to say about his 2013 season, he has the potential to be a superstar.

You’d have to pay a kings ransom. Two first rounders, maybe a second thrown in too. Major investment for an unproven, albeit talented, rookie.

Ziggy Ansah, last years #5 pick, signed an $18m contract in Detroit over four years. His biggest cap hit comes in 2016 at $5.9m. As a rookie he’s costing just $3.3m and next year it only jumps to $4.2m.

That’s the benefit right there. It’s not costing you a fortune to get a minimum of four year out of a good young player. By the end of the deal, Seattle would likely have seen off the Percy Harvin contract — maybe even Richard Sherman’s deal — plus one or two others. An extension if warranted, even a big one, wouldn’t be out of the question.

So salary cost and impact could be interesting to a team like the Seahawks if they do want to move up.

Now here’s the downside…

It’d better work out. Seattle isn’t just replacing one player, as discussed. It could be a few guys. Spending future first round picks puts a lot of eggs in only one basket. So if you go all in for Clowney, he’ll have to be worth it.

It’s a risk. The kind of risk Atlanta took with Julio Jones, who also lacked amazing production at Alabama but had great character and insane physical attributes. They were comfortable enough to take a chance.

Clowney’s disappointing 2013 season shouldn’t put a team off taking him early next year. But maybe it should make you think twice about moving up and blowing future picks on the guy? Does he want to be as good as he can be? Is he saving himself for the next level? Can he be coached into the next big thing?

Is a trade even likely or possible?

If there are a lot of teams in the top ten focusing on a quarterback and sensing the best value for a QB is in the late first or early second — there might be a few willing buyers. Teams that are rebuilding like Oakland or Jacksonville might appreciate the extra picks.

Would a division rival like St. Louis consider a deal? They’d swap a top-five pick this year to ensure a third consecutive year with two first round picks through to 2015.

There could be more buyers than ever looking to deal down in the next draft, so it’s not impossible to consider.

But it’s still way too early to say whether it’s likely or at all plausible.

And yet so much fun to consider…

Thoughts on McShay’s mock

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Todd here, in a lovely photo where he points and grins at Mark Sanchez (like he knew all along...)

Nobody ever sets out to truly project what will happen in a mock draft. These are fun little things that generate web hits and create a debate.

If you’re taking these things seriously you aren’t doing the draft properly.

Most web sites churn out mocks to bring in traffic. Everybody loves a projection (well, most people).

The thing is, I sense the NFL draft is being taken too seriously by a lot of people. We analyse every opinion like it really really matters. Twitter and the internet has created an army of know-it-alls who are never wrong about any players.

Ever.

There are people putting out top-300 boards and talking like that’s even a thing anyone should care about.

It leads to stuff like this video that called Russell Wilson one of the worst picks in the 2012 draft.

Then there’s the cult of Greg Cosell (don’t get me started…)

I actually really like Todd McShay. I also really like Mel Kiper. I think anyone who treats the draft with a sense of fun and excitement will probably feel the same.

I don’t listen to what they say because their analysis makes me feel more NFL-intellectual. I listen to what they say because they just give out an opinion, they debate (sometimes in quite entertaining fashion) and it’s all on a level everyone can understand.

Draft coverage for the masses. And that isn’t a bad thing.

We all think we’re the second coming of Ron Wolf, when really we’re just a bunch of guys who like the draft. It’s just that some of us have bothered to write about it.

McShay and Kiper are a welcome addition to the annual coverage. Kiper’s hair is still a tour de force. And along with Tony Pauline’s work at Draft Insider.net — it’s the stuff I look forward to reading the most.

And having said all that, I’m now going to tear into McShay’s first 2014 mock.

Not because I think he’s a hopeless analyst who should get off my TV. Just because that’s what mocks are supposed to do — generate debate.

It just so happens I tend to disagree with a few things in this latest projection, and god darn it I’m going to have my say.

The first thing that smacks you in the face is the four quarterbacks he has going in the top six picks.

We’ve seen some heavy QB drafts in recent years. In 2011 four went in the top-12. The following year three went in the top eight.

But four out of the first six in 2014? I just can’t see it.

Teddy Bridgewater goes #1 (Houston) — although McShay even admits he only thinks he’s the ninth best player available. Then he’s got Blake Bortles at #3 (Oakland), Johnny Manziel at #4 (Jacksonville) and Derek Carr at #6 (Cleveland).

Meanwhile Jadeveon Clowney lasts rather conveniently all the way to needy Atlanta at #5.

Hey — I appreciate there are a few teams desperate for a quarterback drafting very early this year. But four in the top six is unprecedented. And a year after only one quarterback went in the first round and many established names sank way down the board — I’m not convinced we’ll see a mad rush next May.

Apart from Carolina and Cam Newton — the #1 pick in 2011 — none of the teams who reached on a quarterback that year has prospered. Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder could be coming to the the end of their (very short) NFL careers. Jake Locker might be joining them shortly.

Even NFL teams learn the occasional lesson or two…

McShay has two linebackers ranked way too early for me. Khalil Mack has legit character question marks and seems to lack the raw athleticism that will clearly translate to the next level at outside linebacker. He goes #8 to Minnesota, but I’m not convinced he’ll go in round one.

I like C.J. Mosley, but he’s a fairly limited linebacker prospect and not a true difference maker. McShay has him going to the New York Giants at #11 — who have much greater needs right now.

Mike Evans drops to #20 to Baltimore. If this happens I hope the Seahawks get ready to move up.

Florida defensive lineman Dominique Easley is at #21 to Chicago despite picking up his second serious knee injury this year. He’s a terrific player, but the injuries will surely have a major impact on his stock.

Offensive tackle Morgan Moses at Virginia hasn’t had a great year but McShay continues to grade him in round one, this time to Arizona at #25.

But it ends well enough. He has the Seahawks picking #32 overall. It’s probably done on current record, but it’s still nice to see (let’s hope it comes true). And he has the Seahawks taking Tennessee tackle Antonio Richardson.

If he lasts until the late first round, that would be an absolute steal. I suspect Richardson’s massive upside will guarantee a top-15 grade but we’ll see.

Before I contradict myself and take this too seriously (some may argue I’ve already crossed that line…) I know how hard these things are to write. Doing one every week last year damn near killed me (well, kinda).

I also get a lot of stuff wrong. I said Von Miller was overrated on more than one occasion. I saw positives in Blaine Gabbert. I really liked James Carpenter…

(actually, I think he deserves a lot more credit for his 2013 performance — I still believe, James…)

Nobody’s perfect. Not even Todd McShay.

So I’ll just end with this. Yes please to Antonio Richardson. Nice pick, Todd!

Status check on the 2014 draft order & a new projection

Monday, December 16th, 2013

According to ESPN, if the season ended today, this is what the top-15 would look like:

#1 Houston Texans
#2 St. Louis Rams (via Washington)
#3 Oakland Raiders
#4 Jacksonville Jaguars
#5 Atlanta Falcons
#6 Cleveland Browns
#7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
#8 Minnesota Vikings
#9 Buffalo Bills
#10 Tennessee Titans
#11 New York Giants
#12 Pittsburgh Steelers
#13 New York Jets
#14 St. Louis Rams
#15 San Diego Chargers

It’s easy to forget the Texans started the season 2-0. They’re currently on a 12 game losing streak.

Anyone concerned the Rams will end up with the #1 pick can breathe easy (although in fairness, the #2 pick looks like a shoe-in). Houston hosts Denver and then goes to Tennessee to close out the year. The Redskins seem a little more competitive with Kirk Cousins under center — and face two divisional games against Dallas (H) and the New York Giants (A).

Without wanting to go over old ground, I still think the Rams would’ve been better off drafting Robert Griffin III in 2012. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. So is an opinion on the NFL draft. Mine is that they should have found a way to move on from Sam Bradford and built around their new quarterback.

Sure, RGIII is having a tough time right now. And it’s almost all down to the way Dan Snyder runs his franchise. Without his presence in St. Louis — and with a genuinely good coach in Jeff Fisher — I think he would’ve really thrived with the Rams.

Multiple first round picks look great on paper, but they have to turn into a winning formula on the field.

Michael Brockers, Tavon Austin and Alec Ogletree were all solid picks, but they haven’t had a major impact for the Rams. They’re still a 6-8 team — and how much better would they truly be with Bradford healthy? It’s still early, but compare those early picks to Seattle’s deuce in 2010 — Russell Okung and Earl Thomas. Both players became franchise cornerstones almost immediately.

It’s interesting that there’s been talk Les Snead, the Rams GM, could be in trouble after just a couple of years on the job.

This really is St. Louis’ last chance to prove they did make the right call. If they end up with two top-15 picks, they’ve got to make it count. What do they do with Bradford? Do they finally cut loose? Or keep the faith?

If they do replace him, there’s going to be a lot of pressure to get it right. It’s one thing to bring in the much vaunted, Heisman winning RGIII as the replacement. But is Teddy Bridgewater any better than Bradford? Arguably not. That’s a big call for the Rams, who know they’ll have to either re-sign or cut Bradford sooner rather than later.

With the #1 pick I still think the Texans will struggle to justify picking any of the 2014 quarterbacks ahead of Jadeveon Clowney. Yes — quarterback is their biggest need. It’s why they’ve struggled this year. But you can’t force this.

There will be guys available later in the first round that they can move up and select. Maybe they just sit tight at #33? For me they should take Clowney, put him next to J.J. Watt and enjoy.

It’ll be really interesting to see what Cleveland and Minnesota do. The Browns will get an extra first round pick from the Colts via the Trent Richardson trade. They’ll almost certainly take a quarterback in round one. But will they do it in the top ten? Or will they wait until later, leading to a possible mid-to-late first round rush on QB’s?

The Vikings will have to decide whether to make coaching changes before choosing their next move at the same position. Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel aren’t the answer. If they aren’t stashing Josh Freeman for the long haul, why is he even on the roster? Freeman’s presence in Minnesota makes me think they might give him a shot in 2014, despite a disastrous debut against the Giants earlier this season.

The Jets are also an interesting case. I genuinely think Rex Ryan is a great defensive coach, but the way that team has run its offense the last two years has been shambolic.

Drafting Geno Smith looks like a complete waste — he just doesn’t look good enough. They have no weapons to build around. And what is it they’ve tried to do schematically? Any ideas?

This could be a landing spot for Darrell Bevell next year, with a brand new offensive vision. They have the defensive personnel to be very, very good. But they have no identity on offense. They won’t compete properly in the AFC East until they get it.

If they do go the route of a Bevell (and remember, NYJ’s GM is John Idzik — formerly of the Seahawks) then for me they have to be prepared to draft a quarterback early. A better quarterback. And then they need to get him some weapons.

Can anyone else see Bevell coaching Johnny Manziel in New York? That comes across as suitably dramatic enough for the Jets.

And Manziel can have plenty of fun — just like this — in NYC.

Here’s a quick top-15 projection… just for the hell of it and to bring some different ideas to the table…

#1 Houston Texans — Jadeveon Clowney (DE, South Carolina)
#2 St. Louis Rams (via Washington) — Jake Matthews (T, Texas A&M)
#3 Oakland Raiders — Anthony Barr (DE, UCLA)
#4 Jacksonville Jaguars — Mike Evans (WR, Texas A&M)
#5 Atlanta Falcons — Cyrus Kouandjio (T, Alabama)
#6 Cleveland Browns — Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson)
#7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Greg Robinson (T, Auburn)
#8 Minnesota Vikings — Re’Shede Hageman (DE, Minnesota)
#9 Buffalo Bills — Antonio Richardson (T, Tennessee
#10 Tennessee Titans — Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Louisville)
#11 New York Giants — Cameron Erving (T, Florida State)
#12 Pittsburgh Steelers — Taylor Lewan (T, Michigan)
#13 New York Jets — Johnny Manziel (QB, Texas A&M)
#14 St. Louis Rams — Darqueze Dennard (CB, Michigan State)
#15 San Diego Chargers — Eric Ebron (TE, North Carolina)

So here I’ve got Clowney going at #1 as discussed. Jake Matthews is the Rams pick — purely to try and max out the value there. Replacing Bradford with Bridgewater looks like a sideways step. It could happen, it really could happen. But not in today’s projection. They could start Matthews at left or right tackle, depending on how they view Jake Long. They need to solidify that offensive line for the long haul — although Fisher isn’t really one for drafting O-liners in the first round.

The Jaguars — I just have a hunch that they’ll keep building rather than jumping feet first into a non-spectacular quarterback who won’t have any weapons. I could’ve given them Bridgewater here, but I’m brainstorming (I think?). So in this scenario I have them taking Mike Evans as a reliable, jump ball specialist in the mould of Vincent Jackson. For Evans to go this early he’d have to run well at the combine, but it’s not impossible. He ran away from Alabama.

The Jags mimic the Bengals in 2011 by going dynamic receiver early, then quarterback in round two (A.J. McCarron?).

I have Bridgewater dropping to #10 with teams like Oakland and Cleveland going in different directions. This possibility doesn’t get discussed too often, so let’s talk about it here. Teddy hasn’t had a 2013 season that cements his place among the top 2-3 picks. So here he drops to Tennessee, who will likely make major coaching changes, cut Chris Johnson and possibly move on from injury-prone Jake Locker.

The Jets go for Manziel at #13, potentially usurping the Rams if they do want to move on from Bradford.

Just some scenarios. Discuss away.

Instant reaction: Seahawks shut out Giants

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Metlife Stadium was anything but frosty for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks

This was a 23-0 win that could’ve been 50-0.

Seattle completely destroyed the New York Giants. Only penalties and some uncharacteristically poor execution on offense stopped it being a complete blow out.

The main story of the day was the performance of the secondary. Despite missing Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond again, the Seahawks still picked off Eli Manning five times.

It’s worth noting at this point that Manning has been hopeless all year. He has 25 interceptions in 2013 and only 16 touchdowns. He’s had an absolute nightmare.

But it’s not the numbers that matter today. It’s the manner of the picks.

Byron Maxwell had to fight for his pair. He took the ball away from New York — contesting in tight coverage and then ripping it away from the receiver on both occasions. His second interception on a route over the middle flashed everything you want to see — recognising the play, recovery speed and an acrobatic catch.

Top drawer cornerback play.

We all saw in pre-season how good Maxwell could be. He just needed time on the field to prove it.

In 2011 Richard Sherman came into the team and stole a starting position away from Thurmond with his performances. Is Maxwell repeating the act two years later?

Perhaps.

Here’s an interesting question — let’s say Browner trains this week. Does he start?

How the heck can you take Maxwell out of the line up playing like this?

He has to stay in there. And if he continues at this high level, he’ll probably be starting in the playoffs.

Manning tried to take him on and quickly realised he wasn’t going to get anywhere. So he challenged Richard Sherman instead.

Yeah, not the best idea.

I’m amazed how many quarterbacks try to beat Sherman with the fade. It’s like an automatic pick. You can see it coming as soon as the ball loops into the air. What are they doing?

Sherman’s second pick came on a hail mary, but he had a big assist on the final interception. The NFL Network did a feature on Sherman earlier in the year. In the piece he talked about tipping a pass to Earl Thomas. It’s something they actively work on.

Fast forward to the 6:30 mark:

How many other defensive backs practise stuff like that? I’d love to know. Either way, it worked for the Seahawks.

Without doubt this team has the best secondary in the league. Athletic, prepared, organised. It’s a nailed on certainty that Sherman and Thomas will get new contracts in the off-season — meaning three out of the four positions will be locked up for the long term.

It’s not just the starters either. Jeremy Lane had another terrific game. On one play on 2nd and 8 with 6:41 left in the third — he completely shut down Victor Cruz leading to an incompletion. Seattle picked up a sack on the next play and forced a punt.

Lane also continues to prove his worth on special teams — and he made a really nice stop on a running back too.

Just another one off the production line for Seattle’s defensive back factory. There isn’t another coaching staff in the league that keeps churning out corners like this.

Here are some other thoughts immediately after the game…

– Red Bryant is quietly having a big year. I’ve noticed in the last few weeks that he’s blowing up a lot of run plays with interior pressure. He really is a crucial part of the defense and still doesn’t get enough credit for me.

– Paul McQuistan gave off a ‘bad game’ vibe but I need to re-watch it. He whiffed in pass protection on one play at left guard to give up a sack and had a false start on 4th and goal to eliminate a likely Marshawn Lynch touchdown. Carroll spoke to him after that flag. I suspect James Carpenter will start to get more and more time at guard.

– In terms of the pass protection overall, there seemed to be a few errors today. Missed assignments, silly mistakes. Having said that, the Giants pass rush did a good job creating pressure.

– If they can afford to do it, Michael Bennett needs a new contract. We say it pretty much every week. Today he opened the second half with a big run stop and then a strip sack. He was constantly causing problems for the Giants’ struggling offensive line.

– Steven Hauschka’s only miss this year was a blocked field goal. Think about that. He’s been sensational.

– Penalties on third down were a big story in the first half — on both sides of the ball. It killed a few drives for Seattle and extended a couple for the Giants. In total the Seahawks were flagged eight more times today. Tidying this up still has to be a priority.

– As I mentioned earlier, for some reason there were little mistakes on offense. Golden Tate dropped a couple (unusual for him), blocks were whiffed and Russell Wilson had his worst decision and throw of the year on his interception. I’m not sure why he forced that one downfield. Rare impatience from Wilson? Whatever it was, it’s something he doesn’t do that often.

– The Percy Harvin will he/won’t he saga has gone beyond boring, but I think they need someone who can just be that X-factor on offense. The last two weeks that’s been evident. Let’s hope he makes it back for the post season.

The Seahawks are 12-2 ahead of two home games to finish. They’re one away from tying the franchise record for wins in a season. They became the first team to shut out the Giants at home for 18 years. And they’re back on top of the NFL as the only team on 12 victories.

This was the best possible way to rebound after last weeks tight defeat in San Francisco.

Now it’s all about taking care of business at home, securing home field advantage and regaining the NFC West title.

Brandon Coleman to declare for the 2014 draft

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

As you can see in the video above, Brandon Coleman has officially announced he’s going to enter the 2014 NFL draft.

“I feel like I’m ready to go.”

I’m sure this wasn’t the way he intended to turn pro. Here’s Coleman’s statistical difference between 2012 and 2013:

Eleven less catches. 245 less yards. Seven fewer touchdowns.

I still think he made the right decision today.

Sometimes you have to play the hand your dealt. Rutgers haven’t had a good year. Quarterback Gary Nova didn’t make any noticeable improvement. Off-season knee surgery took away a lot of Coleman’s pre-season work.

Staying at Rutgers for another season only offered the opportunity to add further disappointment to his CV. With the greatest respect to the Scarlet Knights, are they going to come storming back to prominence in 2014? Are they going to put up big yardage in the passing game?

I’d guess not.

And let’s remember, twelve months ago Coleman was debating whether to enter the 2013 draft. Going back for another season this year hasn’t done anything for his stock.

So while Coleman isn’t heading into the NFL with any momentum, he’s doing what he almost has to do. And he won’t be the first player going into the league with something to prove.

First things first — teams will want to check out that knee to make sure it won’t be an issue. Assuming he gets the all clear there — and ignoring the stats for a moment — we’re talking about a player with major upside value.

He could be the next Josh Gordon. Seriously.

Big, tall, fast. He’s a playmaker waiting to happen. And while technically he has some way to go — it’s nothing that can’t be solved with good coaching.

I’ll be really interested to see how fast he runs at the combine. It’s been a while since a guy with his size ran away from defensive backs in college. That’s what he did last year. He left them for dead, breaking huge gains and putting up big YAC.

This is what he’s capable of…

Right now Josh Gordon is the flavour of the month and for good reason. Despite the horrendous quarterback situation in Cleveland, Gordon is making 150-200 yards every week. You can’t stop him. And people are starting to suggest he might be the best receiver in the NFL right now.

(For what it’s worth, that honour stays with Calvin Johnson in my opinion — but Gordon’s in the top five without question)

Go back a year, after the Browns took him in the supplemental draft. He was inconsistent as a rookie — making some plays but also struggling as you’d expect. Now he’s reached a level of comfort (he has a very good offensive coordinator in Norv Turner, and an underrated Head Coach in Rob Chudzinski) we’re seeing how good he can be.

But it took him a little time to get there.

This will be the same situation with Coleman. He needs to learn to high point the ball better. He needs to go up and win jump balls — max out his size and become a difference maker. He needs to run sharper routes and stay focused — avoiding the mistakes and occasional lousy drops.

With a bit of a polish he could be whatever he wants to be.

Of course, for every Josh Gordon there’s a Stephen Hill. Drafted in round two by the New York Jets in 2012 — Hill had everything. Ideal size, speed, potential. And it’s never clicked.

Part of that might be the embarrassing offense the Jets have fielded for the last two years (under two different coordinators). But it’s worth highlighting that while Gordon is now an emphatic success in Cleveland — there’s always another side to the story.

People are cautiously estimating a mid-round grade for Coleman based on his disappointing season. I think it’s too early to tell.

If he trains well, gets clearance on the knee and also runs well at the combine — he could be an early pick. Late first, early second. Stranger things have happened.

How many 4.4/4.5 runners are there at 6-6 and 220lbs?

Remember, teams will buy into potential. Coleman has a ton of it. And Gary Nova won’t be throwing him passes in the NFL.

Don’t sleep on this guy as an early option for the Seahawks. They love to draft players with difference making athletic skills. Pete Carroll is on the record for admiring bigger receivers. And it’s something he doesn’t have in Seattle right now.

Coleman will be one of the more intriguing players to follow in this class. And it wouldn’t be a major upset if he ended up in that first or second round range with a solid off-season.

And who knows? He could very easily end up in Seattle.

Why I don’t want Jim Harbaugh to go to Texas

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Admit it. You'd miss this.

Jim Harbaugh to Texas?

Surely not?

The idea is pretty comical when you think about it.

We’re all college football fans here. Yet even the best facilities, the greatest recruiting advantage and the most passionate fanbase just can’t compare to the NFL.

Why else is Nick Saban’s Alabama contract extension still unsigned? The fact is, being a yearly contender for a National Championship just isn’t enough. You want more. Whether that’s money or whatever.

I bet even Saban is looking at all the vacancies cropping up in he NFL and thinking… ‘what if?’

Jumping ship ala Bobby Petrino is one thing. But Harbaugh isn’t controlling a 4-12 Falcons team. Unlike Petrino, he has his feet firmly under the table in San Fran.

He’s with a contender. He’s still based in California. He’s taken the 49ers to two NFC Championships plus a Super Bowl.

And that elusive title is still to be achieved.

Leaving for Texas would be a bizarre move. And he’d probably spend his entire time with the Longhorns wondering if he made the right decision.

The near certain multiple National Championships he’d compete for (because he is a good coach, let’s be right) won’t compare to one single Super Bowl ring.

So after considering this rumour for a few moments, I’d pretty much written it off.

Until I read this.

Jim Trotter’s piece for MMQB is pure speculation, but it paints the picture of a man who might never truly be satisfied.

Some coaches settle into a job or find the perfect environment. Others spend their entire careers considering what might be a better offer.

More money, more power, more control. If that’s what Harbaugh craves, maybe he would consider an offer from Texas?

I still think there’s next to no chance Harbaugh ends up with the Longhorns. I think we’re more likely to see Saban take that gig — considering he’s taking such a long time to mull over that new contract in Tuscaloosa.

But I’m not using Trotter’s piece to write about something that could happen.

I’m actually using it to explain how much I want to see Harbaugh stay in San Francisco.

That’s right. I hope Jim Harbaugh stays with the 49ers for a long time.

And not because I’m don’t think he’s one of the best coaches in the NFL (he clearly is). And not because I think San Francisco is going to fold under his leadership (they won’t).

I want him to stay for two reasons. The first isn’t all that vital or important. But here we go.

Reason #1

For the first time in my lifetime — the Seahawks, the 49ers and the NFC West are the most interesting thing about the NFL.

Nothing gets close to it. All the great old rivalries of the past (Bears/Packers, Steelers/Ravens) just aren’t that interesting. Not even Manning vs Brady threatened to drag the spotlight away from the main event.

49ers vs Seahawks.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

The games are fierce and competitive. The coaches have history (more on that shortly…). They spend most of the year collecting each others practise squad players.

It’s intense.

A few years ago the NFC West (Worst) was a laughing stock. A shambles.

Now, thanks to the sudden phoenix-like rise in Seattle and San Francisco, it’s pretty much the most interesting thing in Sports.

The Carroll/Harbaugh dynamic is central to that. In part because they both did such a terrific job turning their respective teams into a contender. And also because they clearly despise each other.

They can act all respectful in the press conferences. Pete can put an arm around Jim after losing last week and make it look like he’s not crying inside.

Remember this?

Sure, Pete was pleased to see his team destroy a title contender.

I know, you know… we all know… that strut was about more than that.

Jim is Pete’s arch enemy. Pete is Jim’s arch enemy.

(They’ll argue against that. And maybe that is over-doing it. But who really believes they’ll be sending Xmas cards to each other?)

Together, along with the teams they’ve so carefully crafted (well, Harbaugh mainly inherited his) — they’ve made the NFC West brilliant.

And it just won’t have the same edge without these two fighting it out two or three times a year.

Reason #2

Now here’s the serious reason.

The Seahawks need the 49ers.

The 49ers need the Seahawks too.

Back when the division was a joke and Seattle (followed by Arizona) could pull guys off the street and still walk away with it, I definitely think that lack of competition within the NFC West hurt.

Big time.

When you’re not being pushed every year, you start to take things for granted. And you become complacent.

Seattle got old and never really thought about the future. Everything was win now at all costs. That might just be Tim Ruskell’s way of doing things, but I also sense there was a feeling of ‘screw tomorrow… win today’.

You can’t afford to think like that if there’s another team in the division consistently winning 11-13 games. You have to think about today, tomorrow, next year. You absolutely have to.

I think it’s one of the main reasons Pittsburgh and Baltimore have fielded tough, successful football teams for so long. They’ve won titles and beat the crap out of each other for years.

How much of that was down to the need to be on it every single year, within your own division? I’d argue it played a major part.

And it’s not just the individual matchups. The players sense the rivalry too. Every win, every week matters. It matters more because more than anything you want to be #1 and not #2.

You can’t honestly tell me that same feeling runs through the Indianapolis Colts dressing room, playing in the AFC South?

There’s every chance Seattle and San Francisco will win Championships over the next few years. The battle over the next decade might not be about who wins a week 14 regular season encounter, it might be about who won the most titles.

And that, for me, means keeping both teams right at the top of their game. Everything structurally intact.

Let them slog it out together.

As good as Vic Fangio is (and you’d have to believe he’d have a great shot at replacing Harbaugh) — it just won’t be the same without Jimmy boy.

So here’s to Texas going after Saban and leaving Harbaugh right where he is.

Scrapping and fighting with the Seahawks to be #1. Keeping both teams in the spotlight.

Looking at the overrated guys (in my opinion)

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Flirting with greatness, Kelvin Benjamin has a lot to work on

There are quite a few players eligible for the 2014 draft that I just think are flat out overrated.

Let’s not mistake that for feeling they have no shot at making it. It’s just about grading and where I think they’ll end up going in the draft.

I’m really surprised how often I see Buffalo’s Khalil Mack ranked as a top-15 prospect. He had a ton of production the last two years. But considering he’s an OLB/pass rusher, he looks like a pretty good athlete and not a brilliant difference maker. Will his knack of making plays translate to the next level? I’m not convinced.

There’s also some not-often discussed character issues. ESPN’s Scouts Inc (who rank Mack as the #7 overall prospect for 2014) report he “will test the limits” and “rubs some team mates the wrong way”. He was suspended for the 2012 season opener for breaking a team rule. It’s something scouts will look into.

The Notre Dame pair Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt seem to be getting by on reputation after a pretty disappointing 2013 season. Of the two, Nix is the one with the biggest upside. He is a good player. But is he ever going to be able to manage his weight situation and stay in game shape? It’s hampered his progress significantly this year and is enough of a concern to temper expectations for the next level.

Linebacker Ryan Shazier at Ohio State looks like a very limited prospect and hardly ever makes plays beyond the LOS. You’ll find him in a lot of first round mocks, but for me he’s got next to no chance of finding a home in round one.

Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald has ten sacks for the year — but on tape gives off a definite ‘JAG’ vibe. There’s very little that’s special about his game — size, speed, technique. He looks like a mid-to-late rounder who can slot into a rotation at the three tech. I can’t grade him any higher than that, despite a productive season.

Speaking of players who are producing — Stanford’s Trent Murphy leads the NCAA for sacks with 14. He’s also starting to receive first round grades in the media. I like the guy — he always gives 100% effort. But what is he? He’s not an explosive speed rusher and won’t work the edge. He’s not suited to play inside. Is he a five-technique? From what I’ve seen this year, a mid-round grade in rounds 3/4 would be fair.

Will Sutton continues to divide opinion. I’m still siding with the critics. He’s a streaky player — with hideous tape to match the good tape. Is he explosive enough with the correct hand technique and burst to find a home as a three tech? I’m still not convinced.

And Jace Amaro. Great stats for a tight end at Texas Tech. But does the tape show a dynamic, pass catching difference maker? Or a basic player and the by-product of a system that has consistently put up enormous yardage in the passing game?

There are others too. But I wanted to focus on a fast riser over the last few weeks who’s being talked about as a possible first rounder.

Kelvin Benjamin, wide receiver, Florida State.

I can’t say I’m a huge fan. At times he really looks the part — charging downfield, breaking tackles. He has 14 touchdowns for the year, which is pretty incredible even on an unbeaten team. Florida State aren’t a prolific spread offense that generates production regardless of opponent. They use a pretty conventional looking pro-style offense — so 14 touchdowns is quite a feat.

At 6-5 and 235lbs he has the size all teams dream of. You want a receiver who has those kind of measurable’s. It’s perhaps the one thing Seattle still lacks on offense — a dynamic big man who can just flat out dominate in the red zone and make jump balls look easy.

Here’s the issue though. Benjamin, for the most part, just looks lethargic. It’s like he’s playing at his pace.

And his pace aint fast.

For every brilliant catch and run, there’s a sloppy route. There’s a mind-numbing drop. There’s a coast, a saunter. There’s a missed block. All the ingredients of a player who knows he can be good, but doesn’t crave being great.

He might be the most frustrating player I’ve watched this year.

Let’s compare him to the other high profile big man eligible for the 2014 draft — Mike Evans. While Benjamin’s effort is questionable at best, Evans nearly always plays like it’s his last ever game.

I know his last two outings against Missouri and LSU were tough — but both teams found an effective way to shut down Johnny Manziel.

When the Texas A&M offense clicks, we see what Evans is about.

He runs back to the quarterback to offer a target, he fights to get open, he wins more jumps balls than any other receiver in college and he’s a determined and driven individual.

Benjamin, in comparison, is the exact opposite. Where’s the fire? Where’s the fight?

Here are two examples on tape. On both occasions he’s statistically impressive. But watch his performances against Boston College and Florida and tell me what you see.

Given Jameis Winston isn’t eligible for the NFL until 2015, he’d be better off staying at FSU and putting another year under his belt. Work on technique — especially route running and tracking the ball. He needs to be more sudden and explosive getting into his breaks. He’s a long speed guy — meaning he goes through the gears downfield, but at the next level he’s going to need to get open in a few steps and not just rely on his size.

Demaryius Thomas is great because he runs a 4.38 at 6-3 and 229lbs. I doubt Benjamin would get anywhere near a 4.38, so he can’t avoid to have black marks next to so many other aspects of his game. Not if he wants to go in round one.

Cutting out the horrific drops is also vital. In a years time if he’s got another boat-load of touchdowns, eliminated the drops and worked on his overall technique — he could be a high draft pick. Right now he looks like a second or third rounder at best.

I’ll say it again — that’s so frustrating. Because looking at the game stood in his pads, he should be a top-15 pick. I suspect he could be if he really wanted to be.

And I’ll say this — in that round 2/3 range I’d consider him. There is potential there. And there aren’t many guys who can do what he does at that size. But he’ll be a long term project. He’d be the type of receiver you don’t really get anything out of in year one or two.

If I’m drafting a receiver to work on as a project, I’d still favour Brandon Coleman at Rutgers. He too has the unique size, but he looks faster and is a little less frustrating (only just).

But he also hasn’t had the benefit of playing with the Heisman favourite at quarterback this year.

Justin Gilbert (CB, Oklahoma State) vs Oklahoma

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Monday thoughts

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Pete Carroll has never had to worry about someone else's quarterback

Comparing Seattle’s rebuild to St. Louis’ current woes

When Pete Carroll and John Schneider arrived in Seattle, they had an extremely focused vision for rebuilding the team.

And let’s be right, a titanic rebuild was required.

The Seahawks had nobody to build around. No stars left over, ready to be the cornerstone. Just ageing veterans picking up pay checks and injuries.

It needed strong leadership. Seattle needed an identity.

The funny thing is, having so little to build around definitely helped the Seahawks. Having a blank sheet of paper was actually a good thing.

They never had to consider what was already on the roster. They never had to build around somebody else’s idea.

This, for me, is an infrequently discussed reason why Seattle became an 11-2 franchise.

When you can do whatever you want, you truly can install a vision. It was all Carroll. The ‘Win Forever’ philosophy within the locker room, the style of football they were going to play on the field, and what they were going to do in each draft to improve an area of the team piece by piece.

This was a completely focused rebuild starting from scratch. At no point did they have to say, “well we have this guy, who wasn’t our pick, but he’s going to impact our plan.”

Now look at the Rams.

Jeff Fisher inherited a much more talented roster in St. Louis compared to Seattle in 2010. They had two excellent edge rushers. A dynamic inside linebacker. A physical, pounding running back. And a quarterback.

Or so they believed.

I think the Sam Bradford pick has seriously hurt the Rams. Essentially, Fisher had some of his vision crafted for him by the former regime. And at first I suspect he believed it wouldn’t be an issue. But it became one.

Even if they decided to make major changes, it was nearly impossible to trade Bradford and his $78m contract. He had to put is faith in somebody else’s guy. And he had to tailor an offense to suit what he already had.

Whether he liked it or not, that was the hand he was dealt.

Carroll had no such restrictions. He could basically do what he wanted. Imagine how different things would be in Seattle had Bradford declared after the 2008 season and landed with the Seahawks in the 2009 draft. It’s not that unrealistic, given they had the #4 choice (although there’s every chance he could’ve gone to St. Louis or Kansas City at #2 or #3 — both needed QB’s at the time).

Let’s run with that thought for a second. When Carroll left USC, he would’ve been forced to work with a quarterback he hadn’t selected. And that relationship — coach and QB — has to be water tight. There has to be ultimate confidence there. The kind of trust and confidence we see between Carroll and Russell Wilson.

I just have a hard time picturing Bradford and Carroll as a working partnership. It doesn’t quite fit.

And it would’ve been a potentially frustrating marriage given Bradford really hasn’t taken the next step. He looks average.

Fisher could be forgiven for feeling a little agitated.

His quarterback is set to earn $17.6m next year. In 2015 the cap hit is $16.6m.

They’d be better served finding a way out of that deal and starting again. Sportrac has the dead money on his deal at around $7m next year– which isn’t too bad. I think they need a get out, and fast.

For too long that pick has shaped what the Rams have tried to do. Fisher needs a release to truly turn that team into a contender.

He needs his guy.

They had to try and build around Bradford and hope he was up to it. They made the big trade with Washington in 2012, but clearly didn’t like what they saw with the inherited #6 pick. Some reports said they wanted Justin Blackmon, who went at #5 after a move up by Jacksonville.

Were the Rams targeting Blackmon for Bradford? Maybe.

When the Jaguars stepped in, St. Louis moved down again — dropping all the way to #14, almost in disgust, and taking Michael Brockers. It all seemed a bit reactionary at the time.

I think they wanted to force it. To get a weapon for Bradford.

And I think part of the reason they traded up for Tavon Austin this year was a response to that.

But they’re still building around a player who barely warrants such faith.

It just seems like, despite spending three first round picks, the presence of an average and now injured quarterback had too much influence.

Less could’ve been more.

Start with the blank sheet. Draft Robert Griffin III. Build around him instead.

Would the Rams be better off? I genuinely think so — despite all the picks they got from Washington. There’s no way Fisher and that organisation would’ve brought on the Dan Snyder -nspired chaos we’re seeing with RGIII and the Redskins.

Was it ever a realistic option? Of course not. Bradford was forced on Fisher. An arranged marriage worth nearly $80m.

It’s hurting them. Look how quickly Bruce Arians has turned Arizona into a winner. They were a shambles a year ago. Jim Harbaugh immediately picked up the 49ers and got them to a Super Bowl after years of underachieving. And Carroll made Seattle competitive with a lightning quick rebuild.

Rams fans would be well within their rights to question why things are taking so much longer in St. Louis.

To an outsider it looks like they’re regressing again. They’ll play tough some weeks because they have a good coach and some elite defensive players. They do have talent. But it’s all a bit of a jumbled mess without the one guy who glues everything together.

I suspect in 2014 we’ll see the Rams again forced to build around Bradford, unless there really is a logical way out of that contract. I have this vision of them going tackle (Matthews, Robinson, Kounadjio) and then receiver (Watkins, Evans, Lee) — without getting any better in the process.

Perhaps going for a Texas A&M hat trick would be the best way forward? Jake Matthews and Mike Evans in round one. Trade back into the first to go after Johnny Manziel.

Hey, it’d get people talking. And all three guys can play. It’d be an easy sell on season tickets — Manziel, Evans and Austin on the same offense? Who wouldn’t be intrigued by that?

It might also be a disaster — Manziel’s certainly volatile territory. He could change the NFL. He could be a massive disappointment. But it might be a more pro-active plan than continuing to build around an average quarterback and being the spare wheel in a rock solid NFC West.

It’s a big twelve months for the Rams. I’m not sure they can justify floundering in 2014 having spent five first round picks in the process. Better quarterback play will likely determine whether they become another nightmare match-up for the Seahawks and the rest of the division.

For me that means ridding themselves of the one thing Seattle never had to worry about at the start of the Carroll era.

Somebody’s else’s well-paid quarterback.

Luke Willson’s role developing

For most of the year Luke Willson has been a project. He had nine catches in his final year at Rice. And when he was drafted in the 5th round, even the keenest college football fan barely knew anything about him.

This is essentially what we knew — 6-5, around 250lbs and runs a 4.54.

That’s it.

Yet that is what the league is looking for. It’s what a heck of a lot of regional scouts will be asked to find. Go and get the next athletic move-tight end who is big and fast.

It’s been steady progress for Willson so far. He got rave reviews in training camp. Yet in games he’s mostly been limited to one big play on each opening drive. The scripted part he can practise during the week.

Maybe things have started to click? Maybe he’s growing in confidence, starting to understand the concepts and how he can be effective?

Against the Niners he was a bigger part of the game plan and scored his first pro-touchdown — leaving Patrick Willis for dead in coverage and sprinting home on a nice score.

While he’s no Jimmy Graham or Jordan Cameron, he is a difficult match-up for linebackers. And it’ll be interesting to see if his production increases in the final three games.

Look out for the Arizona game in week 16. They’ve struggled against tight ends all year, including against Zach Miller when the teams met earlier in the season. That could be a big break out day for Willson, much in the way Anthony McCoy torched the Cardinals last year.

If he continues to progress and makes the most of the off-season, who knows what he can achieve going forward?

The Seahawks needed a weapon like this. Every team does these days. And with only Eric Ebron an obvious solution in the 2014 draft, seeing Willson improve will be a major plus point for this developing offense.

Byron Maxwell played well… he just needs to back himself

In pre-season Maxwell looked like a starting NFL cornerback. That was one of the big storylines of the summer — just how good the depth at corner is. Antoine Winfield not making the roster was a bigger deal than we probably realised at the time.

Walter Thurmond and Byron Maxwell essentially made him redundant. Jeremy Lane did enough as a spot-starter last year to warrant some faith.

All three have shown up in a big way.

Maxwell is the biggest positive for me. He’s physical. He fits the character of the defense and in particular the secondary. And it looks like he’s spent enough time around Richard Sherman to understand the benefit of preparation.

If there’s one thing he just needs to do to completely take that step forward to legit starter — it’s trust himself more.

At times yesterday he was grabbing, holding and in some cases — mugging — the 49ers receivers. He got called, he also got away with some stuff. And I just kind of felt it was all unnecessary.

He’s a very good cover corner and he can be physical. He has the ball skills as we saw on the interception. And despite getting targeted (understandably) he never backed down.

I’d love to see him show a little more confidence to play ‘clean’ — to trust his skills in coverage, his athleticism and not risk the wrath of a referee’s flag.

If he can do that, I think he has a very bright future in the league.

Kearse’s role going forward

Speaking of guys breaking out — Jermaine Kearse just continues to impress.

He always flirted with quality at Washington. He dared you to believe in him — and some did. I remember a time when he received grades in the second and third round range by the big media pundits.

Kearse went undrafted largely due to the freakish inconsistency he showed. He was probably the most frustrating player in college football for two years. And I’m not a Husky fan (I’m not a fan of any college team).

Whether it’s the laser eye surgery or something else, this year he’s looked like a genuine NFL receiver. The circus catch against the 49ers was truly incredible — a major underrated play in the game on third down. To contort his body in such a way to make that catch — that was special. Really special.

So what can he be going forward?

I think this current role suits him. He’s not a big overly physical guy, but he makes plays. He’ll never dominate a defense or take over a game. Seattle really lacks that tall, explosive big man and that’s never going to be Kearse.

But at a time when other guys are creeping closer to free agency (Tate, Baldwin) they’re going to need others to step up to the plate and if nothing else — remain consistent.

And despite what he showed in college, Kearse is quickly turning into Mr. Consistent for the Seahawks.

Tre Mason one to monitor

My choice for the Heisman? Auburn’s Tre Mason.

All year he’s produced. He’s the true heart beat of his team.

They don’t pass much and rely on brilliant run blocking and the opportunistic tendencies of their backs. Mason is essentially the focal point of a team nobody expected to be in the National Championship.

Yes — Jameis Winston has had a great year. He’s also surrounded by 5-star talent and I must confess to having a great deal of sympathy with this article.

You could also argue the Seminoles have barely broken sweat in the ACC this year, unlike Auburn who have needed Mason to get through another rock-hard SEC campaign.

But it’s his pro prospects that interest me the most, not his ability to win an award. And I think he has a big future.

For starters he’s explosive enough — he can make the big play. He’s got a very squat frame with a strong lower body. I think he can act as a receiver out of the backfield and be something of a Darren Sproles. Yet he’s capable of pounding the rock too.

Against Alabama he was hitting the hole well and making yards after contact. He consistently picked up 4-5 yards.

In other games he’s been able to make big explosive plays. He had 304 yards against Missouri. Without that effort, his team don’t get to the big game.

Right now I’d grade him right up there with Bishop Sankey. Teams will be put off taking running backs early. When a sure thing like Trent Richardson looks positively powder puff in the NFL, that has to be a concern.

We’ll see less and less running backs going early as a consequence.

Wherever Sankey and Mason end up going in the draft, I still expect both to have an impact at the next level.

Instant reaction: Seahawks lose in San Fran, drop to 11-2

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

Frank Gore's 51-yard run helped earn the Niners a key win

Penalties, two big red zone sequences and one run decided this game.

In the first half the Seahawks consistently extended 49er drives with a series of holding or P.I. calls. From what I saw, all were called fairly.

In the second half it was something much more avoidable.

San Francisco were rolling before Byron Maxwell’s interception, and it was a chance to regain momentum and swing things back in Seattle’s favour. It was never going to be easy driving from the 2-yard-line, but a time-consuming scoring possession at that stage could’ve been decisive.

Things started well. A favourable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Donte Whitner gave the Seahawks some breathing room.

Then, boom.

Marshawn Lynch broke off a big 20-yard run. Seattle had 1st and 10 at the San Francisco 42.

But no.

Michael Robinson got a handful of facemask. It was a fair call — the type we’d all call fair if it benefited the Seahawks.

Instead of 1st and 10 at the 49ers 42, it was 1st and 25 at the Seahawks 23.

It killed the drive and Seattle punted (after wasting a time out — more on that later). O’Brien Schofield then interfered with the returner. Another 15-yard penalty.

That sequence just about sums the night up. The Seahawks couldn’t get out of their own way.

Here’s an interesting stat. Seattle had 64-yards of total offense and lost 45-yards on penalties in the third quarter.

They ended the night with nine total penalties for 85-yards.

Stuff like that gets you beat.

Apart from the sea of yellow, two big redzone plays had a major impact — giving the Niners an eight-point swing.

RED ZONE PLAY #1

Vernon Davis’ touchdown before half time was avoidable and costly. Seattle appeared destined to restrict San Francisco to a fourth field goal, taking a 14-12 lead into the break. K.J. Wright left the game with a broken foot, leaving Bobby Wagner covering Davis. Wagner reacted slowly and didn’t get any help.

Touchdown.

It was a sloppy redzone score. As good as Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree are — Davis is a killer redzone target and demanded more attention in that situation. It wasn’t a shock he was the intended target.

14-9 Seattle became 16-14 San Francisco. And it stayed that way until the fourth quarter.

RED ZONE PLAY #2

Clinton McDonald’s sack and the subsequent punt return from Golden Tate looked like a potentially game-defining moment in the fourth frame.

Seattle began to move the ball, edging closer to a crucial touchdown and moving into the redzone. A 21-16 Seahawks lead would’ve forced the Niners to go after a touchdown to win.

Instead they kicked a field goal. Settling for three instead of seven was big in hindsight and led to the second four point swing of the game.

(In fairness, Aldon Smith should’ve been called for a face mask on Zach Miller on the failed third down conversion)

It would’ve been really interesting to see the 49ers deal with a decent fourth quarter deficit. At home against Indianapolis and Carolina — they imploded and lost on both occasions.

When Seattle failed to punch it in you felt they’d need another drive to win. And so it proved.

This was a small margins game. In the two big redzone sequences that ultimately decided it, the 49ers won both situations.

TD Niners. Field Goal Seahawks. Eight points. Home team wins.

GORE BREAKS IT OPEN

San Francisco couldn’t run on the Seahawks. They had 3.5 YPC before one big, 51-yard effort by Frank Gore.

A play that put the Niners in position to win.

The blocking up front was perfect, but Earl Thomas took a bad angle on the tackle and struggled to catch Gore in the chase. Richard Sherman sprinted past Thomas (surprisingly) to make the play.

This was a heavyweight contest figuratively speaking. The Niners jabbed all night but landed the knockout blow in the last round when it mattered.

QUESTIONING THE TIME OUTS

The 51-yard run by Gore might’ve actually helped the Seahawks initially — it prevented a slow death via manageable field goal and gave them a chance to get the ball back with time on the clock. If they weren’t going to get an outright stop, a big play in that situation wasn’t totally back-breaking.

So it was a surprise to see all the time outs pretty much wasted.

The first was tossed away in the third quarter on 2nd and 25 (why?). The two remaining T/O’s were spent before the ‘and goal’ conversion. As soon as Colin Kaepernick converted on third down with a designed run, he basically iced the game. With the two minute warning stopping the clock anyway — the Seahawks were better served holding fire with their time outs.

It left just 26-seconds to try and get a game-winning score. It was never going to be enough. Even on the long throw Wilson attempted to Kearse (intercepted) it would’ve been nearly impossible to spike the ball with eight seconds left.

SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Losing a second game might not be the worst thing for the Seahawks. Getting a bloody nose every now and again isn’t so bad. A 15-1 season was very likely with a win today — and how many of those do you see in the NFL?

The target switches to 14-2 — and that’d still be a franchise record. It’s also very achievable against the Giants (A), Cardinals (H) and Rams (H).

The big negative though is what this win will do for San Francisco. They might be hitting their stride at the right time. And they’ll believe they can beat Seattle in the playoffs — and they can.

Even at Century Link.

I truly believe the Seahawks can handle most NFC teams quite handsomely. The Saints, Panthers, Eagles, Lions. Against all of those teams I’d expect a big win.

The Niners?

It’d be a battle, just like this. Decided by small margins, just like this.

And I’ll say this now — make no mistake, Seattle’s biggest threat in the NFC is the team they played tonight. They are the annual dangerous Wild Card team everybody fears.

A win today would’ve put real doubt in the minds of that San Francisco team. The Seahawks could say they marched into Candlestick Park and took the NFC West title away from the defending Champs… right on their own doorstep. They could’ve pushed the Niners towards possible elimination.

In that sense, it’s a missed opportunity.