NFC West training camps: Players to watch

Players to watch and players on the hot seat for the 49ers and their three divisional rivals in the NFC West heading into the start of training camps this week.


49ers


PLAYER TO WATCH
Wide receiver Randy Moss:
The grizzled veteran has the potential to catapult this team into its first Super Bowl in nearly 20 years. He also has the potential to destroy. Just ask Brad Childress. It was just two years ago that Moss flamed out spectacularly in his second stint in Minnesota. In a four-week span he cost his team $25,000 by refusing to talk to the media, he compared a respected caterer's spread to dog food, and he laid the groundwork for Childress's firing when Childress fired Moss but didn't tell ownership he was doing it. That is an action-packed four weeks, and it reminds everyone that Moss can unleash a pernicious storm at any moment. That's the bad randy. The 49ers saw nothing but the good Randy after he signed with the team this spring, as he was a model citizen and teammate during team workouts and drew raves from teammates and coaches alike, particularly head coach Jim Harbaugh, who said Moss already was the best wide receiver on the team.

ON THE HOT SEAT
Quarterback Alex Smith:
You could say Smith is on the hot seat every year. What quarterback isn't? However, for the first time in his eight-year career, Smith has no excuses. This will be his second year in coach Jim Harbaugh's offense, and he also has weapons. He consistently found the revitalized Randy Moss in offseason practices. Tight end Vernon Davis is catching everything in sight and could be poised to join Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski among the most prolific receiving tight ends in the NFL. Newcomer wideout Mario Manningham eagerly wants to establish himself as a starter after playing behind Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks in New York. Not only that, the 49ers have an emerging offensive line, led by Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, that can protect Smith. The team is ready to take flight offensively, and Smith needs to be the pilot. He finally is set up to have success and take both his game and the team to the next level. But now he must do that, because there was a perception that Smith was just managing the offense last year rather than guiding it to its full potential.


Arizona Cardinals


PLAYER TO WATCH
Tight end Rob Housler:
A third-round pick in 2011, Housler has the skills to be an impact player. He runs a 4.5 40-yard dash and catches the ball well, although injuries limited his playing time as a rookie. Housler was impressive in offseason drills, and it appears the Cardinals want to make him a big part of the offense. If Housler and veteran Todd Heap are healthy, the Cardinals think they have a dangerous combo that will present many problems for defenses. The team tried to use the tight end more last season, but quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and John Skelton both had trouble hitting them when they were open. Jeff King remains the team's best all-around tight end, but Housler could emerge as a dangerous threat down the seam. To be sure, the Cards are hoping for an impact this year from Housler in his sophomore season.

ON THE HOT SEAT
Quarterback Kevin Kolb:
No one in Arizona's camp is feeling more heat on his rear end than Kolb, who missed seven games last season with a fractured foot and a concussion. The concussion symptoms didn't subside for nearly two months, including a month after the season ended. Kolb has handled the criticism well and is determined to prove the Cardinals made a wise decision in trading for him last summer. But many fans seemed to have turned against him, and Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves have been criticized for the trade and for paying Kolb so much money. Kolb is facing competition from John Skelton, but it's clearly Kolb's job to lose. Whisenhunt has shown before he'll make a surprise choice at the position (Kurt Warner over Matt Leinart in 2008), so Kolb isn't just going to be handed the job. He'll have to earn it, and the pressure is clearly on him to do so.


St. Louis Rams


PLAYER TO WATCH
Cornerback Janoris Jenkins:
The Rams went out on the proverbial limb when they invested a second-round pick this year (39th overall) on the talented Jenkins, whose off-field issues led to his departure from Florida and eventual landing for one season at North Alabama. Jenkins was arrested twice for possession of marijuana and another time for his involvement in a bar fight. As camp approached, there were reports that Jenkins was refusing to use a financial advisor the Rams had suggested to help him sort through the child support he faces after having fathered four children with three women. Jenkins likely would have been a high first-round pick were it not for those non-football problems. During OTAs, he was often with the first unit, so the Rams are counting on him being able to focus solely on football. Obviously, it remains to be seen if he can.

ON THE HOT SEAT
Quarterback Sam Bradford:
Coach Jeff Fisher is probably tired of saying that a key consideration in his decision to come to the Rams was the presence of Bradford, the first overall pick in the 2010 draft. Now, Bradford has to live up to that confidence after a dismal 2011 season where the offense was never comfortable with coordinator Josh McDaniels' system following the lockout, and the second half of the season where a high ankle sprain made Bradford a shell of his 2010 self, when he helped the Rams improve to a 7-9 record and almost claim the NFC West title. With Brian Schottenheimer on board as the new coordinator, Bradford is now digesting his third offense in three seasons, but there are similarities to the system he learned during his rookie season, which he believes will result in success.


Seattle Seahawks


PLAYER TO WATCH
Wide receiver Sidney Rice:
The veteran says he's finally healthy as he comes off two offseason shoulder surgeries. Seattle's high-dollar free-agent signee in 2011 is expected to lead the passing game this season. The 25-year-old said he suffered a labrum tear in his right shoulder during training camp in 2011 that forced him to miss the first two games of the year. Although not fully healthy, Rice came back and gutted it out through nine games. But after suffering two concussions in the span of three games, Carroll decided to shut down his star receiver, placing Rice on the season-ending injured reserve list in December. The South Carolina product put on 11 pounds of muscle this offseason, upping his weight from 198 to 209 pounds. Rice said he'd like to arrive at training camp at 215 pounds in order to better handle the pounding of a 16-game season.

ON THE HOT SEAT
Wide receiver Mike Williams:
After a breakout 2010 season that resurrected his career, Williams struggled to stay healthy in 2011. He finished with just 18 receptions last season after leading the Seahawks in catches in 2010 with 65. Williams did not fully participate in Seattle's offseason workout because he's still rehabbing from a broken ankle that cut short his 2011 campaign. Williams could begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list, and could be released if young receivers like Kris Durham and Ricardo Lockette play well in his absence. Was 2010 just an aberration in the previously disappointing Williams' career? Or was it a sign he truly can make an impact in a league that had him so highly regarded when he entered the NFL as a high first-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions in 2005? Stay tuned.


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