1. Stay healthy
This is a tired axiom for every team in training camp, but for the 49ers, this is more true than the last several years because they have talent. One reason for their 13-3 season in 2011 was their ability to avoid injuries. On defense, Patrick Willis missed three games and most of a fourth game with a hamstring pull. Free safety Dashon Goldson missed the first two games with a foot injury and Ray McDonald missed one game with a tight hamstring. That's it. Offensively, the team was hit hard at receiver with the knee injury to Braylon Edwards that finally knocked him off the roster and the season-ending, early-October broken ankle by Joshua Morgan. The 49ers have fixed their problems by stacking the receiver position with the addition of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and the drafting of A.J. Jenkins in the first round. The 49ers did the same at running back, fortifying starter Frank Gore, who hit a mid-season wall, with Brandon Jacobs, and an exciting rookie in LaMichael James. They join the emerging Kendall Hunter. Nevertheless, should injuries hit the wrong position at the wrong time, the 49ers could struggle just to win the division. This team finally is loaded, but it must stay healthy in several key areas.
2. Get quarterback Alex Smith comfortable throwing deep
The 49ers can't wait to make this happen. They need to get Smith comfortable enough during training camp and in the preseason to throw the deep ball to stretch defenses and keep them honest. If Smith can't shirk his conservative proclivity to hit the check down receiver, then Moss, Manningham and tight end Vernon Davis will be in a frustrated state of permanent idle. Last year, Smith excelled at throwing deep, he just didn't do it often enough. However, things could sour quickly if Smith can't animate the receiving talent he has. The Niners' passing game is now built to go deep. It's on Smith to see that it gets there, and this summer is the training ground to see if he can do it.
1. Select a starting quarterback
Kurt Warner retired more than two years ago, but the Cardinals are still trying to replace him. The major storyline of this training camp will be the competition between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton. Kolb should have the edge, given the Cardinals have paid him $19 million already and gave up a considerable amount in trade to get him. But Kolb's first season in Arizona was marked by injuries (foot, concussion) and poor performances. Skelton showed moxie and the ability to play well in the fourth quarter. But he also had the advantage of starting late in the season when the defense started improving. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has said he would like for Kolb to be the starter, but that Skelton earned a shot at the job with his performance last season.
2. Improve offensive line performance
The right side of the offensive line could feature two new starters. Adam Snyder, a free agent from the 49ers, is expected to hold down the right guard job. Bobby Massie, a fourth-round pick, is going to get every opportunity to earn the right tackle job. He'll have to beat out veteran Jeremy Bridges. The offensive line has taken a lot of heat in Whisenhunt's five seasons. Some of it has been justified, some not. The biggest target has been left tackle Levi Brown, the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft. Brown's performance has been underwhelming overall, yet the team signed him to a new deal this season. The Cardinals did that based on two things: the free-agent market for left tackles was shallow, and Brown played the best football of his career over the last half of the season.
St. Louis Rams
1. Figure out who will be running the defense
Gregg Williams, initially hired by coach Jeff Fisher to be the defensive coordinator, was suspended for his role in the Saints' pay-for-performance program, but it came before the offseason program began. Fisher has insisted that the defense will be a collaborative effort with former coordinators Dave McGinnis (assistant head coach) and Chuck Cecil (secondary) on the staff. In addition, the defense originated with Fisher. However, during OTAs and minicamp, linebackers coach Blake Williams was orchestrating much of the defensive calls, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he led the defense on game days. The son of Gregg Williams, 27-year-old Blake has been on his father's staff during previous stops in Washington, Jacksonville and New Orleans and knows the present defense better than anyone.
2. Find out who can be consistent at receiver
There is a lot of competition for spots in the pass-catching corps, but it's difficult to even project the starters. There are high hopes for rookies Brian Quick (second round) and Chris Givens (fourth), plus the addition of veteran Steve Smith, who appears recovered from a knee injury that affected his last two seasons. They will be competing against holdovers Danny Amendola, Danario Alexander, Brandon Gibson, Greg Salas and Austin Pettis. Injuries affected this group in 2011 with Amendola (elbow/triceps), Alexander (hamstring) and Salas (broken leg) missing significant time. Pettis was suspended at the end of last season for using a performance enhancing drug, and will also miss the first two games of the coming season.
1. Find a quarterback
Incumbent Tarvaris Jackson, free-agent signee Matt Flynn and third-round draft choice Russell Wilson are competing in a three-way battle for the starting quarterback job. Jackson will get the reps with the first unit to begin training camp, but don't be surprised if Flynn is ultimately the guy. Jackson finished 7-7 as a starter in his first season in Seattle. Head coach Pete Carroll appreciated Jackson gutting out a torn pectoral injury he suffered in Week 5 against the New York Giants. Jackson also earned respect in the locker room for his toughness, becoming one of the leaders on the team in a short amount of time. However, Jackson struggled in late-game situations, failing to lead his team to just a field goal that would have won games against Atlanta and San Francisco, and extended games against Washington and Arizona. Jackson finished with a 30.7 passer rating in the two-minute drill last year, with no touchdowns, six interceptions and nine sacks in those situations. In a much smaller sample size, Flynn posted a 103.5 passer rating in two starts with Green Bay. Although he's only 5-11, Carroll believes Wilson could be the team's quarterback of the future, which is one of the reasons he added the Wisconsin product to the team's competition for the starting job. Wilson is a perfect fit for Seattle's offense because of his ability to move outside of the pocket, arm strength, ability to throw on the run and overall leadership skills.
2. Develop a pass rush
The Seahawks finished tied for 19th with just 33 sacks in 2011. They drafted defensive end Bruce Irvin and signed defensive tackle Jason Jones in free agency to rectify that situation. Along with those two, Seattle drafted defensive tackle Jaye Howard in the fourth round and Greg Scruggs in the seventh to create more options on passing downs.