Behind enemy lines: NFCW notes & team needs

A recent rundown of team news and notes along with the latest needs for each of San Francisco's three divisional rivals in the NFC West:

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Adding WR Nate Burleson made sense for the Seahawks even though the signing cost Seattle a third-round draft choice.

The goal, as usual, is to head into the draft with as many needs filled as possible. Burleson gives the offense a competent replacement for WR Joe Jurevicius, who signed with Cleveland, and a player the Seahawks expect to start opposite WR Darrell Jackson.

Re-signing Jurevicius would have been the ideal scenario. But once he decided to sign with his hometown Browns, the Seahawks found themselves in the market for a receiver. Rather than signing a declining veteran or depending on a rookie draft choice, the Seahawks sought a happy medium with Burleson, a 24-year-old player with the ability to gain yards after the catch.

"The fit is great for a lot of reasons," coach Mike Holmgren said. "One, Nate is an outstanding football player. Two, he is from here; his family is here. That is all great. And three, he is a fine person. That is what we have tried to do and we think that is a big part of our success. The fit is really good."

A Seattle-area native, Burleson came to the Seahawks as a restricted free agent from Minnesota. He topped 1,000 yards receiving in 2004, his second year in the league, before injuries limited his production last season. And at 24, he is only beginning what Seattle expects to be a long career in his hometown.

The plan is to plug Burleson into the split end position, with Jackson remaining at flanker. WR Bobby Engram will probably go back to his role as a slot receiver in three-wide formations. He was effective in that role prior to becoming the split end last season.

Engram has also proven he can be effective in the split-end role, but the slot role might prolong his career. He turned 33 in January.

Burleson said he's looking forward to playing before the home crowd. His parents still live near Seattle.

"If you were talking to me in Minnesota, I would tell you the same thing," Burleson said. "I love Seattle."

Burleson signed a seven-year, $49 million contract. The deal pays him $14.5 million in the first four years, including a $4 million signing bonus. Seattle added high base salaries late in the contract so Minnesota would not match the offer. The deal included poison-pill clauses that would have forced the Vikings, but not Seattle, to guarantee the full $49 million.

--- The 2006 regular-season schedule did nothing to diminish the Seahawks' status as NFC West favorites.

The schedule served up three prime-time home games. Two of those are Monday night games against Oakland and Green Bay, who combined for eight victories last season.

The defending NFC champions drew a Sunday night road game against Chicago, but that one is early enough (Oct. 1) to avoid the full bite of winter.

And though the Seahawks face a severely shortened week brought on by a Thursday night game, the opponent is one Seattle has handled recently -- San Francisco, on Dec. 14. The Seahawks have won six consecutive games against the 49ers, amassing a 71-3 scoring advantage in the last two meetings at Qwest Field.

The Seahawks' status as NFC champs will bring a new level of regular-season exposure for the franchise. Seattle was one of six franchises to receive four prime-time games, and none of them can be bumped by the new "flex" scheduling formula. The Seahawks could add as many as two prime-time games if NBC and the league find the team's late-season afternoon matchups appealing.

Seattle has two Monday night games for the first time since 1987. The upcoming season will mark the first time since 1986 that Seattle has played two Monday night games at home.

The Seahawks also have to like how the league assigned its road matchups against Detroit and Tampa Bay, the longest trips of the year.

Seattle opens the season against the Lions, allowing the team to take care of some unfinished business at Ford Field, site of the team's Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh. Seattle then has three-plus months before making its second and final regular-season trip to the Eastern time zone for its matchup with Tampa Bay.

--- DE Bryce Fisher, a captain in the Air Force Reserves, has been visiting U.S. troops in the Balkans and Persian Gulf. The tour, arranged by the United Services Organization in conjunction with the NFL, lasted nearly two weeks.

Some thought the trip might take away the sting of the Seahawks' loss to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL. Wrong. Fisher encountered numerous Steelers fans on the trip. Some taunted him.

"This trip has put the worst taste in my mouth about that game," Fisher said. "Right after we lost, my feeling was, 'OK, it's done, let it be.' Now I'm so much more determined to win for the fans and for myself. ... You'd think half of western Pennsylvania is deployed over here. They wave their Terrible Towels and needle me as much as possible. Most of it's good natured-fun, but ..."

Only to a point.

"I heard lots of Pittsburgh fans jibber-jabbering about the NFC," Fisher said. "I've seen how many other fans look at us and look at the game, and I'm more determined than ever to win."

--LB Isaiah Kacyvenski has always been a team player. He's a smart player, too. The Harvard graduate picked up a $125,000 signing bonus for agreeing to lower his 2006 salary from $1.5 million to $600,000. The team values his contributions on special teams and his ability to backup all three linebacker spots, but the $1.5 million price tag was too high. By taking the pay cut and up-front money, Kacyvenski improved his job security while clearing $775,000 in cap space for the team.

"Notwithstanding his contributions on the field, the Seahawks recognized the character and the leadership that 'Kaz' brings," Kacyvenski's agent, John Drana, told the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune. "He wanted to be part of the Super Bowl team and he wanted to help his number be more cap friendly. It's a win-win for everyone."

Kacyvenski has been a special-teams captain.

--- Seattle still has question marks in its secondary after Pro Bowl CB Ty Law left town without a contract. Law, 32, paid a recent visit to Seahawks headquarters. He is reportedly interested in a contract that pays him $7 million per year with $10 million in guarantees. He probably won't find that kind of money in Seattle.

The Seahawks have also visited with former Dolphins S Lance Schulters and former Falcons S Keion Carpenter.

Seattle hopes FS Ken Hamlin can bounce back from head injuries that shortened his 2005 season. The plan is for Hamlin to participate in upcoming mini-camps, but he has not been cleared for the regular season. Depth became an issue when Hamlin was injured and FS Marquand Manuel signed with Green Bay in free agency.

Money won't stop the Seahawks from pursuing help in the secondary. The team had more than $10 million in cap space after signing Burleson to a long-term deal.

TEAM NEEDS
1. Cornerback: The Seahawks still have Marcus Trufant, Kelly Herndon, Jordan Babineaux and Jimmy Williams. They could use another starting-caliber corner, perhaps a veteran along the lines of Ty Law.
2. Safety: FS Ken Hamlin has been cleared by his own doctor, but not team doctors, and Seattle needs him to come back from career-threatening head injuries. The team has visited with free-agent FS Lance Schulters. Babineaux could also play FS if needed, but there is uncertainty at the position.
3. Defensive end: Seattle has two solid starters. Re-signing Joe Tafoya gives them a good backup. But if one of the starters goes down, Seattle could be in trouble. That's why Seattle needs to address this position in the draft. Losing out on Jets DE John Abraham was a blow.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

It's like the old joke about the man who goes to see the doctor and tells him, "It hurts when I do this." Advises the doc, "Then don't do that."

So it was with the Cardinals rushing attack last season, statistically the second-worst since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.

That helps explain the free-agent signing of running back Edgerrin James.

When it comes to rushing the football in 2006, the Cardinals are hoping it no longer hurts when they do that.

At the recent NFL meetings, coach Dennis Green waxed on about the difference a running game might make for the Big Red's offense, complementing what statistically was the league's most potent passing game.

Of course, it should be noted that even though the Cards rolled up big passing yardage against defenses that knew it was coming, they still couldn't put the ball in the end zone.

Even though Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin each had more catches than the previous club record, Green acknowledged that he was uncomfortable flinging it to them so much.

"It's very difficult to stay with the run as much as you should and as much as you want to if you feel you can have so much more success throwing the ball," Green said. "You're probably not right, but it just appears that way because you've got two pretty good receivers. I think now we'll give the running game the kind of commitment it should have.

"Edgerrin James was so much a part of the Colts' success. If he got 20 carries, he normally got 100 yards. If he got 100 yards, they normally won. It just breaks down the defense. It puts them in a situation where they have to pick their poison. Do you want to stop Fitzgerald and Boldin? Do you have somebody that can do that? Or do you have to stop Edgerrin James running the football? It's the classic, you jab when they respond, then you counterpunch it. We hope to be very good at that."

Green acknowledged that the Cardinals have some work to do in rebuilding their offensive line to give James, Fitzgerald, Boldin and Kurt Warner a chance to create a prolific, balanced offense. The signing of free-agent guard Milford Brown was a start. The Cardinals are expected to draft an offensive lineman on the first day, possibly even in the first round at No. 10, depending upon who is left.

Widespread injuries up front also prevented some players who were viewed as underachievers from reaching their potential, according to the Cardinals coach. And, Green said, the staff did them no favors by too quickly calling plays away from the run. There has to be commitment and repetition the build a strong ground game.

Never did the Cardinals try to pound the ball.

"We've got a line that is anxious to get back and play again," Green said. "They feel, and I agree with them, that they're a lot better than what they had a chance to show. We had a lot of injuries. We'll be quite a bit better up front.

"Some of it was the running and some of it was the play-calling. I said right from the start we were maybe too aggressive in abandoning the run for the pass. And I'm pass-happy, no doubt about that. But I know that you've got to have balance with the run to have success."

James, too, should help make the line better.

"There aren't going to be many people who think the Colts have Hall of Fame offensive linemen," Green said. "But your style of running, how you set the blocks up and how they take away from the aggressiveness of the pass (rush), I think it makes all the difference in the world."

--- There may be no horse trailer but after seven years, the Cardinals are back on what's left of "Monday Night Football."

They host the Chicago Bears on Oct. 16 in their new $370 million retractable-roof stadium in Glendale, Ariz. The date that late in the season and playing in the evening might be a combination that causes the roof to be open.

The new facility no doubt led to the Cardinals opening their season at home for the first time since the team moved to Arizona from St. Louis in 1988. League schedule-makers always front-loaded the Cardinals' schedule with road games while open-air Sun Devil Stadium was their home to avoid afternoon games in the brutal September desert heat.

"The Arizona Cardinals have never had an opening home game in 18 years in Arizona. That's a competitive disadvantage," Green said. "No. 2, the Arizona Cardinals have never had two out of three opening games at home. Every year, half the teams get two out of three games in September at home. The other half get one out of three.

"Arizona's always had only one. No. 3, we're going to have much bigger crowds. We're selling a lot of tickets. People are very excited about it. We've got a shot at a lot of people who are moving west, but they've held on to their own ties. They would love to go to games, but never really felt there was any affiliation with the Cardinals. This gives us a shot at that new demographic. We're the fastest-growing city in the country, just in city population. It gives us a chance to show we're serious about football and we've got a great venue to watch the game in."

The Cardinals open at home vs. NFC West foe San Francisco on Sept. 10, the first of four homes games among their opening six.

It gives them the chance to emerge from September not already behind the 8-ball, as they have been so often as the result of early-season losses on the road that ruined seasons.

"I think that's an advantage," Green said.

Their bye is at the season midpoint, after their eighth game.

--- RB Roger Robinson keeps carrying on in NFL Europe. After opening with back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, Robinson came within five yards of making it three in a row with 95 yards on 14 carries, including a 66-yard touchdown run on the third play of the game, for Frankfurt.

Robinson, who played in college at Northern Arizona, leads NFL Europe in rushing after three weeks with 348 rushing yards on 63 carries.

--- Among recent interested visitors to view progress on construction of the new Cardinals Stadium was world-renowned architect Peter Eisenman, who played a key role in its design.

"Every time I come, there is always something new and it is just getting closer and closer to what it is going to be," Eisenman said. "I'm really impressed.

"This is the first time I have seen the outside with all of the panels in place and it looks great. Since there has never been a stadium like this before, I didn't know how well the material would work the curves, but you can hardly tell they are straight panels. I think the exterior panel really looks great."

During his tour, the video boards were being tested with a clip of the stadium roof lift.

"You look at the scoreboards and it is amazing how crisp they are," Eisenman said. "I've been on this project since 1997. The past nine years of my life have been put into this stadium, so finally seeing it go up is like seeing a baby who was crawling and not speaking develop into something that is talking and walking. It is just great and it is going to be very exciting to be here on August 12th. There is no doubt about that."

--- G Rolando Cantu, the only Mexican national playing in the NFL, and several teammates, serving as extras, shot a Gatorade commercial aimed at the Hispanic community at the team's Tempe, Ariz., training facility.

"We wanted to recognize and celebrate Rolando since he is the first professional athlete to come through the Mexican collegiate system and enter the NFL," Gatorade Senior Marketing Manager Dan Hickle said. "His story is very inspirational to many others who have great dreams of doing things here in the United States." --- The team has moved to bolster its depth by re-signing five players, including restricted free agent Kenny King. Though he missed the past two seasons following wrist surgeries, King, a fifth-round pick in 2003, is expected to be a strong contender to win a defensive tackle position.

K Nick Novak, C Shawn Lynch, DT Langston Moore and DT Tim Bulman, all exclusive rights free agents, signed for one year each.

Novak filled in for injured Pro Bowl K Neil Rackers on Dec. 2 and made three field goals.

Moore started a game after being claimed from Cincinnati. Bulman also started a game after injuries cut into the team's defensive-line depth.

--- The team has begun its 14-week off-season strength and conditioning program.

Among the first through the door: veteran safety Robert Griffith, who was believed to be considering retirement. He would enter his 13th season if he returns.

TEAM NEEDS
1. Offensive line: The Cardinals now have RB Edgerrin James and QB Kurt Warner to protect. They have some linemen on the roster that should be performing at a higher level -- Leonard Davis, Oliver Ross, Elton Brown, Alex Stepanovich. They upgraded at G with the signing early in free agency of Milford Brown. Injuries stymied Ross and Stepanovich, and Brown was a rookie. Davis hasn't emerged as a premier left tackle and could move back inside to guard. But the bottom line is the Cardinals need to improve not only the chemistry but also the talent in order to ignite a rushing game that couldn't convert on third-and-2, couldn't punch the ball into the end zone in goal-to-go situations and had the second-worst rushing average since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
2. Defensive tackle: The team quickly signed DT Kendrick Clancy in free agency, but it needs more. Russell Davis, a longtime starter, is an unrestricted free agent and is shopping. Seattle is interested. This is a team that can't have too many run stoppers. It has attempted to use quick, undersized players inside for years. Darnell Dockett has shown playmaking ability but might be better suited to play end. Depth became a critical issue at these spots when injuries took a toll as the season wore on.
3. Cornerback: The Cardinals haven't had a formidable pair in recent memory. Antrel Rolle, last season's first-round pick, missed 11 games to a knee injury. It remains to be seen if he is the player the Cardinals believe he is. Fellow 2005 rookie Eric Green saw spot-starting duty, largely because other players were injured, but he, too, has upside to his game and could develop into a serviceable starter. The problem with both players is the "could."

ST. LOUIS RAMS

New Rams coach Scott Linehan gave a significant glimpse at what his offense will look like during a chat with reporters at the recent NFL meeting in Orlando, Fla.

Given the voluminous playbook developed over the years by former coach Mike Martz, Linehan made it clear his system will be easier on the players.

"The more you shoot free throws in basketball, the better you get at it," Linehan said. "And the more you run the same play (in football), the better you're going to get at it. It's going to become more efficient. You're going to know where to go. You're going to know the problems with it.

"That's the only way I've ever known how to approach it. I think players get better by running the same things over and over -- and that's not being critical about how they did it (before).

"You cannot deny the success of St. Louis in their glory days offensively. It was probably one of the most unbelievable things I think any of us have ever watched as far as an offense. ... But I'm more inclined to say that we're going to be able to score points and be as productive a different way. Maybe a few more runs in there. Maybe a few more quick passes. Not as much of the hold the ball, hold the ball, throw it."

Joking that "I'm not smart enough to do that," when talking about the previous offense, Linehan added, "I've got to keep mine a little more simple. In Mike's defense, he's brilliant -- probably a genius -- as far as offense. You can't deny his ability to dissect a defense with some of those things he did offensively. I think what happens, though, is you get caught up in doing things and changing, and being innovative and all that. And sometimes that can be too much for some players."

Citing the running game as an example, Linehan said, "We're only going to have three basic runs that we run different ways -- hopefully over and over again."

Linehan said after talking with the team's offensive players, some things will remain the same.

"We're going to keep a lot of the concepts that they ran," he said. "The first thing we did, we went in and kept all the personnel groupings the same. Called the formations the same. I was explaining it to Isaac (Bruce) and he said, 'It sounds to me like you want to set the table so you can eat.' And it makes sense. It's a great way of looking at it.

"If we can go out to our first mini-camp and call a formation, and all of our players can immediately line up and get in that formation -- and running simple motions -- to me, that's half the battle."

The tempo, he said, will also be very quick.

"You'll see us break the huddle fairly quick coming up to the line," Linehan explained. "I like maximum time at the line, minimum time in the huddle. You'll see us do a lot of no-huddle, as I think a lot of teams do. You see a lot of teams that don't necessarily run no-huddle, but they don't huddle. They get to the line and they call a play. They get to the line and have a lot of time to look at the defense. If they need to change a (pass) protection, you can change it. I think that's really where the game is evolving because the defenses are getting so good at showing you one thing and giving you something else. So you've got to kind of change it, and try to make them more simple."

But within that simplicity will be more power for quarterback Marc Bulger than he had under Martz, meaning the ability to audible.

"It (audible system) will be fairly simplified," Linehan said. "But we'll have a lot of different tools to use. On first down, if they're playing the run, if they're anticipating the run, I want to be able to have a simple way of getting to a pass. And vice versa. It's much easier to call plays when your quarterback is controlling that element of it.

"He's going to have automatic things he can go to. If all of a sudden we're playing a team, and they run a 'Bear' defense, the quarterback's got to know that this (pass-blocking) protection has too many holes in it against the 'Bear' defense. He's going to have to know how to get us out of a bad situation.

"He's going to have much more to do with our run game. That'll be a big change as far as (changing) runs, or runs to pass, or passes to run."

Fewer seven-step drops? Not as many four-receiver formations? A no-huddle? Yes, offense will be the focus, but it will be different.

Concluded Linehan, "We won our last six games at Miami, and we opened up probably our last seven games in no-huddle and did quite a bit of it. We're not strictly a no-huddle team. We're not going to be Indy. ... But there's going to be a time and place for it, and I would think every week it's going to be part of what we're doing."

--- Fakhir Brown wanted to make one thing clear: He wasn't coming to St. Louis to be a backup. Brown signed a five-year contract in the first week of free agency and added immediate depth to a secondary that returns starters Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler, along with DeJuan Groce, who started 15 games last season because of injuries to Fisher and Butler. Ron Bartell, a rookie in 2005, also started seven games.

Butler missed the entire season because of a knee injury, while Fisher was finally shut down in late November after trying to play with an injured groin. Fisher is entering the final year of his contract, while Groce is a restricted free agent, set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2006 season.

Said Brown, "I am expecting to be a starter. That's what I want to be ... a starter. I have got big plans for myself."

Brown played his last four seasons with the Saints, starting 10 games in 2004, and began last season as the starter but suffered a knee injury in practice after the opener. He missed four games, and started just three the rest of the season.

"It was a fluke deal," coach Scott Linehan said of the injury. "It wasn't anything that's a concern for us now. It was just a bad-luck injury."

Linehan includes Brown in the hunt for a starting job.

"No question," he said. "I think he's right in the mix, right away. His only issue last year was he got hurt in practice."

Brown is also comfortable because Jim Haslett, his coach in New Orleans, is now the Rams' defensive coordinator.

"I look at him like he's still the head coach because that's the only thing I know him as," Brown said. "It seems to me that he will be just the same as he was in New Orleans. It feels very good for me.

"I talked to the defensive coaches once I made it here. I have talked to the coaches and everyone is making me feel comfortable and at home. They are just telling me to keep doing what I have been doing and everything will work out well. There will be a lot of competition, but I am up for it."

--- Following a visit that didn't result in a signing, the Rams eventually added Raonall Smith for linebacker depth.

Smith is expected to compete for a job on the strong side against Brandon Chillar, who is trying to return from a rotator cuff injury.

"That's a definite competitive situation," coach Scott Linehan said. "No question. (Smith has) got some size and speed. And he's been a very good special-teams contributor. I think he's still an ascending player."

Smith is the second player from the Vikings' defense that the Rams have signed since Linehan became coach. Linehan was Minnesota's offensive coordinator from 2002-2004.

Injuries severely limited Smith his first three seasons, but last year the 2002 second-round draft choice played all 16 games, started six and was second on the Vikings with 21 tackles on special teams.

--- While many Rams fans fret over the age of center Andy McCollum and right guard Adam Timmerman, coach Scott Linehan said he's glad to have them.

"We're getting a little old on the interior," Linehan acknowledged. "But I'd rather be in a situation where we've got guys that have played and work on the future, knowing that they probably have a year or two left in them, than not have them at all."

TEAM NEEDS
1. Tight end: Brandon Manumaleuna's salary increases to $1.325 million this season and there is no other proven depth on the roster. Under former coach Mike Martz, the tight end was often an afterthought in the passing game, but new coach Scott Linehan appears to have a different philosophy. There is a need because a playmaker would help the offense, especially in the red zone.
2. Linebacker: The two free agents signed last season, Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley, were disappointments. Claiborne has already been released, while Coakley might be back if he recovers from a broken leg, it will probably be as a backup. The Rams moved quickly and signed Will Witherspoon, and said he will play middle linebacker. A strongside linebacker is still needed, though the recently signed Raonall Smith will compete.
3. Guard: Adam Timmerman is getting up in years and while there is some hope for Blaine Saipaia, he is an unknown. Claude Terrell played as a rookie last season, and needs an off-season in the weight room to build strength and stamina. But some competitive depth is necessary, as well as a tackle behind Orlando Pace and Alex Barron.

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