Chat wrap: Running games in focus

The first NFC West chat of June 2010 came and went Thursday. Transcript here. Highlights below.

Chad (AR): Why hasn't Seattle released Julius Jones?

Mike Sando: Because he is one of the two best running backs on the team right now [along with Justin Forsett]. The Seahawks need to find out whether Leon Washington can help them this season. They need to develop Quinton Ganther. Jones is insurance for them right now. He's not great at anything or terrible at anything. He's neither the problem or the solution. But he has value. Releasing him would serve no purpose. At least when the team released LenDale White, the move sent a strong message to the team about accountability.

Ryan (Irving): Hey Sando, quick question. You listed James Laurinaitis as a projected leader for the Rams defense yesterday and didn't mention Chris Long in that segment of over/under paid players. But now that Long is playing left end, who do you think projects as a better long-term player for the Rams, Long or Laurinaitis? I'm going with Long. As always, thanks for sharing your perspective.

Mike Sando: No problem. Those valuations were relative to salary, which is relative to draft status. Chris Long would have to be the best player in the league to be seen as undervalued based on the contract he received as the second player drafted. I also see Long as a player on the rise. He does not appear to be a dynamic, pure pass-rusher in the mold of elite players at that position. But he is an ascending player. Your argument for Long over Laurinaitis is easier to make after watching the second half of last season. I'm OK with it.

Jon H. (Omaha, Neb.): Hey Mike, daily reader of the blog. The talk for a while here now is that the Niners are starting to look like the favorites going into this season but no one is ready to hand them anything, especially you. I too understand they haven't achieved anything yet, but looking at the roster compared to the other teams, the Niners seem to be strong in all aspects. Alex Smith, even if he doesn't have a great season, won't hurt the team this year. We have seen what he can do even with remote talent. Now he has an arsenal. Where do you feel the biggest hole on the Niners team is, to where you feel you are unable to say they are favorites going into the season?

Mike Sando: The 49ers are the 2010 favorite in my view, but you're right about me not offering an unconditional endorsement. Quarterback is still a question mark. How well can Smith operate the offense outside the shotgun? Can Smith and Frank Gore both produce effectively in the same offense? How well will Smith hold up over the course of a full season, particularly now that opposing defenses will have multiple weeks of game tape on him? Remember, the 49ers revamped their offense in midseason, both from a philosophical standpoint and a personnel standpoint (adding Michael Crabtree, replacing Shaun Hill). It's conceivable that teams will be better prepared for Smith in 2010.

Brian (Frederick, MD): What team do you think will have the most successful run game in the upcoming season?

Mike Sando: The Cardinals are probably in the best position in terms of having good run blockers up front and two young, recently productive backs. Your use of the word "successful" is appreciated. I'm very interested in seeing how much the 49ers' run game improves this season. Frank Gore has a chance to put up good numbers in that offense, but there are questions about the line as the team works rookies into the mix. The Rams will have a productive ground game as long as Steven Jackson is available, but will it be successful if the team fails to increase its scoring significantly?

That last point -- about the Rams' scoring offense -- was the focus in an answer about what the team must do to improve its defense.