We've been hearing the following whispers from around the NFC:
• An unsung key to the Niners' surprising success up to now has been the team's tremendous across-the-board blocking. "And the guy that blocks the best is (WR Michael) Crabtree," said one daily team observer. "I mean, it's amazing the way he has been knocking guys down. I'll tell you what: Nobody is calling him a prima donna now."
• We hear the Rams are more than a little bit concerned about the recent concussion suffered by ORT Jason Smith. "They have to be," said one team insider. "That's his third concussion in 2½ years, and it was a pretty severe one. He's got several weeks before he's back, but it's gotten to the point where you start wondering whether it's possible Smith might have played his last game."
• The Seahawks didn't seem to have too many qualms throwing rookie CB Richard Sherman into the fire in place of the injured Walter Thurmond in Week Seven. "Cleveland went right at him, and he held his own," one regular team observer said of Sherman. "They're intrigued by him. It's like the same thing with (new starting OLB) K.J. Wright: 'Let's see what you can do.' They sure have size with (6-foot-3) Sherman and (6-4) Brandon Browner."
• John Skelton, the Cardinals' starting QB in the final four games last season, has quietly reclaimed the No. 2 spot on the depth chart from Richard Bartel. "Skelton's healthy again, and Bartel didn't do much when he had a chance to play in Minnesota," said one daily team observer. But we hear it's more like Skelton and Bartel are Nos. 2 and 2A, respectively. "They're still considered close," the observer said.
• It's becoming clear that, barring injuries, Eagles second-round S Jaiquawn Jarrett won't be playing much on defense this season. But fellow Nate Allen told PFW that Jarrett has handled himself well in spite of this. "He's learning how to be a professional and doing it very well," Allen said. "He prepares as if he's starting, which is important for a young player to do. He's doing a great job so far."
• Speaking of players with limited roles, RB Ronnie Brown — now back with the Eagles after the failed trade to the Lions — isn't likely to see the field much going forward. Rookie Dion Lewis has asserted himself well in limited snaps and has done a good job in pass protection.
• The Giants don't plan to change the role for a healthy Brandon Jacobs, despite his comments in Men's Journal that he doesn't anticipate being with the team in 2012. He and Ahmad Bradshaw have been at their best when they work in tandem, and the team knows this as well as anyone. The Giants will use Jacobs as much as they can in the second half of the season.
• This is the time for young Redskins WRs Leonard Hankerson and Niles Paul to step up. They will face less pressure than previous draft picks Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas did because they were lower picks, but Hankerson and Paul will get their chances to impress with Santana Moss out of the lineup for a while.
• Don't be surprised if Packers second-year TE Andrew Quarless becomes more of a factor in the offense after the team's bye week. We hear the arrow is pointing up for Quarless, who has bulked up over 250 pounds and become a greatly improved blocker who can still catch the ball and make a big play on occasion, which he did for the first time this season (a 21-yard catch) in Green Bay's last game vs. Minnesota.
• The Week Nine bye comes at a good time for the Lions with QB Matthew Stafford (ankle), RB Jahvid Best (concussion), WR/key special-teams contributor Rashied Davis (foot) and DT Nick Fairley (foot) all dealing with injuries. Fairley's injury could be something he has to contend with all season, a daily team observer notes.
• Falcons CB Brent Grimes is continuing to strengthen his case for a long-term deal. Grimes was a restricted free agent this year and signed a one-year deal worth $2.61 million in August, but he's due to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason and could have several teams interested in his services if he hits the open market. Head coach Mike Smith recently said Grimes, who is among the league leaders in pass breakups, is playing "very, very good football," just as he did last season, when he replaced Charles Woodson on the NFC's Pro Bowl roster.
• Saints DE Will Smith, who turned 30 in July, has built a reputation as a very tough player by performing at a high level despite dealing with significant pain at times in his eight NFL seasons. He's played through a shoulder injury, a sports hernia and an abdominal strain, among other ailments, at various points during his career, but he told PFW he feels "great" through seven games this season. "I don't feel like I've been playing eight seasons," he said. "I feel like this is around my third or fourth year. I feel pretty good this year."
• With Earnest Graham out for the season after tearing his Achilles in Week Seven, the Buccaneers' Erik Lorig, a seventh-round pick last year, will get a chance to prove that the team can count on him to be their starting fullback. Graham had been the top fullback before moving to running back with LeGarrette Blount, who is expected back after the bye, sidelined by a knee injury. Graham will be a free agent after the season, and sources say Lorig's performance in the final nine games could go a long way in determining whether Graham has a future with the Bucs.