Behind enemy lines: Catching up with NFC West

Catching up with the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC West now that everybody is settling in after the NFL draft.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

A three-day mini-camp revealed interesting possibilities for an offensive line that had only one way to go after the team posted the league's worst rushing numbers last season.

It didn't take the line long to begin the transformation, long before it knew that it would have Edgerrin James running behind it.

Guard Milford Brown was signed in the first 24 hours of free agency, and it appears he will slide right in as the right-side starter, ahead of Elton Brown, who was forced to play significantly as a rookie when he wasn't really ready.

And at left guard, rookie Deuce Lutui will be a strong challenger to Reggie Wells, so strong that Wells might move to center to compete with Alex Stepanovich and Nick Leckey.

While it is true that eight starting combinations were used last season because of injuries, thwarting any attempt to establish continuity, there also were issues of underachievement and talent, especially lack of quality depth.

"The most important thing on the offensive line is building depth," said offensive quality control coach Bill Khayat. "Last year we had so many injuries and that is one thing we want to try to avoid is mixing and matching lineups."

The Cardinals' longest stretch with the same five players in the same five positions was four games.

--- After his first look at Matt Leinart in mini-camp, quarterbacks coach Mike Kruczek said of the first-round pick, "I was really impressed with his rhythm and the way he was able to absorb things and take them in, which is crucial for a quarterback. His execution and mechanics are actually better than I thought they would be for the first time out. He picked up on things very quickly. He is a quick study."

--- The rookies return May 16 for development work.

--- Among those coming off injuries who sat out mini-camp: starting middle linebacker Gerald Hayes (knee), starting left guard Reggie Wells (ankle), center Alex Stepanovich (shoulder), starting cornerback Antrel Rolle (knee), starting outside linebacker Karlos Dansby (hamstring) and fullback James Hodgins (knee). They are all expected to be cleared for the opening of training camp.

--- The turf -- Tifway 419 -- has been installed at Cardinals Stadium, which opens in August in Glendale, Ariz. The natural-grass field is in a huge tray that weighs 17 million pounds. It will be rolled into the stadium for game days on a massive track system of 542 steel wheels. That process takes about an hour. It then will be rolled back outside for watering and exposure to sunlight when not in use in the $455 million retractable-roof facility, making it available with a hard floor for convention, trade shows and other activities.

The movable field is the first of its kind in North America.

--- The stadium is showing early signs of being the economic engine that was promised to be when Maricopa County voters approved a tax in 2000 to help build it. Global Spectrum, the company that manages it, will hire 2,000 people, in areas from administration to guest services.

More than 30 non-football events have been booked for the stadium's opening year.

--- The greatest benefit of having the new stadium sold out for the season?

"I can finally TiVo my home games now," said WR Larry Fitzgerald.

The Cardinals haven't had a home-game TV blackout lifted since a visit from the Green Bay Packers early in 2000.

--- DE Calvin Pace has nearly lost his roster spot several times – after making two sacks in 16 starts as a rookie, after showing little improvement in 2004, and again in 2005 after finally showing signs of playing like a first-round pick but having his season end with a non-football injury, a cut arm suffered at home during the bye week. Now he is getting yet another chance. He has been moved to strongside linebacker behind Karlos Dansby.

--- RB Roger Robinson continues to tear up NFL Europe with Frankfurt. He posted his fifth 100-yard game in a win over Rhein, becoming only the third back to have five or more 100-yard games in the league. He is one short of the record.

But it is difficult to see how Robinson could fit in. Behind Edgerrin James is Marcel Shipp, the team rushing leader three of the past four years and a big body for short-yardage work, and 2005 second-round pick J.J. Arrington, to whom the team is committed financially. Arrington is coming off a disappointing rookie year.

Robinson appears to be a strong practice-squad candidate.

He has 833 yards on 157 carries. The NFL Europe rushing record is 1,057, by Mike Green of Barcelona in 2001. Robinson needs 225 yards in the final two games to break it.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

After a get-together with the team's veterans the weekend before the draft, new coach Scott Linehan greeted the rookies and some first-year players over the weekend in another camp. In June, the team will have its mandatory, full-squad mini-camp. This past weekend was about beginning to teach rookies the new world of the NFL.

Said Linehan, "You've got to be able to get them to the next page. We'll spend a lot of time teaching them basic information: huddle procedure, play-calling, terminology, names of fronts and coverages, those kinds of things. That's really important in order to get to a certain level of comfort. ... You want to take away that anxiety."

It's one reason a lot of teams bring in the rookies alone, so that they can learn in an environment without veterans.

There will be plenty of time for that in June, and when training camp begins at the end of July.

"We want to get the rookies up to speed a little bit," he said. "The first-year players will be able to help them kind of get started, how we do things, snap counts, alignments, calls, all those things. We want them to learn how we practice as a team and then how we do individual things by position, what we expect.

"I'm eager to look at all of them. Obviously, looking at our new players that we drafted and signed as free agents, but also some younger players that we didn't get to evaluate too much at the first mini-camp. I'm equally excited about both opportunities."

Two players to be watched closely will be right ends Joe Klopfenstein (second round) and Dominique Byrd (third round). Gthe trade of tight end Brandon Manumaleuna on the second day of the draft has left the Rams with little experience at the position and no true blocker.

Said offensive coordinator Greg Olson, "Expectations are high because of where we've taken them. We'll bring them along and see what they can do. It's too early to make an assumption about where they're going to be."

--- Because final exams have not yet occurred yet at Stanford, by rule, third-round pick Jon Alston is not in attendance at the mini-camp. Alston is expected to contribute at both linebacker and safety, depending on how fast he learns the defense.

--- First-round pick Tye Hill is looking forward to his first mini-camp, but he's already champing at the bit for September to roll around.

"I'm excited about getting out there and performing," Hill said. "But I can't wait until all this stuff is over, as far as mini-camps and training camp. I hate camp. I'm ready to get into the season."

Hill was glad to renew acquaintances with other players.

"I know most of them," he said. "I played against (Virginia's) Marques Hagans and (Colorado's) Joe Klopfenstein. And I played with (Southern California's) Dominique Byrd and the defensive end from Indiana (Victor Adeyanju) at the Senior Bowl."

As for the scrutiny he will face, Hill welcomes it.

"That comes with being a first-round draft pick," said Hill.

--- Linehan referred to defensive coordinator Jim Haslett as "the lobby king" because of his persistence in having the Rams draft for defense. It was a joke, but Haslett got a tad defensive when told of Linehan's comment.

"We had 10 draft picks, and five were offense and five were defense," Haslett said. "So it came out even."

Of course, what he didn't mention was that three of the five offensive selections came from the fifth round on, with two in the seventh round. The reality is that three of the Rams' first four choices were on defense.

Haslett knows there is a lot of work to be done.

"I think the whole defense has to play better than they played the last couple of years, especially on the run game," Haslett said. "I want our defensive team to be tough-minded and physical. But I also want them to be good (at) technique, smart, and I want them to be good tacklers. And I don't think it was a good tackling football team last year."

--- General manager Charley Armey is feeling better after being briefly hospitalized during the weekend of the draft when he experienced pain in his arms and chest. It occurred around the end of the first round.

He went for tests, and was back on the job the next day.

"I was just sweating and my blood pressure was high," Armey said. "They (doctors) figured I just got really dehydrated and run down a little bit because I hadn't had a lot of sleep. And my blood pressure's high, so they just wanted to be precautionary."

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

All signs point to a contract extension for Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, who has guided the team to an NFC-leading 32-16 record over the last three seasons.

"They have had some talks, and some real good talks," Holmgren said as the team completed its recent mini-camp. "It's ongoing and I'm feeling good about stuff, but nothing has been finalized yet, so it's a little premature still."

Agent Bob LaMonte recently spent time in Seattle meeting with team officials. They made enough progress to leave Holmgren feeling as though a deal would probably come together.

"I'd like to hang around," Holmgren said. "At the end of every season, I'm drained a little bit and they gave me some time (to decide what he wants to do). That's how we're approaching it. They've had some good talks. We'll see. It takes a little time, that's all."

Holmgren came to the Seahawks in 1999 as coach and general manager. He lost the general manager title after the 2002 season.

The Seahawks have the NFC's best record since Holmgren stepped down as general manager so he could concentrate more fully on coaching. He would like another chance at the general manager role, leaving some to wonder whether an extension might include an out clause allowing Holmgren to pursue such an opportunity if one came along.

"There is a lot that goes into a player's contract or a coach's contract," Holmgren said. "When I was an assistant coach, there wasn't so much in there. You just kind of did it. Now there's a little more to talk about in fairness to everybody, I think. That's what we're banging around a little bit."

While Holmgren took some time off before deciding he wanted to pursue an extension, the Seahawks' interest in retaining him has not wavered since last season.

"I think Mike is a great coach," owner Paul Allen told the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune in February. "He certainly proved it once again with what happened this year (2005) and I'm optimistic an extension can be worked out."

--- If the Seahawks are penalized for having 12 men on the field this season, a federal judge won't be the one meting out punishment. That's because the Seahawks and Texas A&M agreed to settle the Aggies' lawsuit claiming Seattle infringed on its "12th Man" trademark. Neither party admitted guilt. The Seahawks, who in 1984 retired the No. 12 in honor of their fans, can continue using the description in a limited scope.

"Our fans won't really notice any change in what we do, but we have reached an agreement with Texas A&M and we're really happy that has happened," Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke said. "I think at the heart of the agreement is an acknowledgement of both organizations of the tradition that one another have. Theirs certainly dates back a lot longer. They do have more alumni than we have. But we're really pleased because in '84 something happened here, and I think the 12th Man is more relevant in our world today than it's ever been."

The Seahawks credited the "12th Man" for helping them post an 8-0 home record in two of the last three seasons.

--- The Seahawks plan to build a state-of-the-art team headquarters on the Renton waterfront south of Seattle.

President Tim Ruskell emphasized the need for a new facility shortly after the Seahawks hired him in February 2005. He was on a boat ride with CEO Tod Leiweke and other team executives when they passed the site where the facility is to be completed in June 2008. Ruskell said he liked the property. Leiweke informed him that team owner Paul Allen already owned the land. Such is life when your owner happens to rank among the world's richest men.

"The rest was history," Leiweke said.

The Seahawks think the new headquarters will help them attract free agents who might otherwise have reservations about moving to the most geographically isolated city in the NFL. The facility will feature 51/2 fields, including one inside an 80,000-square-foot indoor facility.

"To have a new indoor facility in an area of the country that gets a little rain on occasion is really going to help, and it really enhances our off-season program," Holmgren said.

--- Like most good teams, the Seahawks benefit from a positive vibe in the locker room. For that reason, new players assimilated quickly during the team's post-draft mini-camp.

"Coming off the season we had, there should be a good locker room, and there is," Holmgren said. "The new fellas entered right in and already became part of the football team. Our young guys, our draft choices, which is a big part of this camp, seeing how they would respond to things, they're great kids. I'm very happy with how it's are going so far."

--- The Seahawks will consider adding a defensive end, cornerback, tight end and veteran backup quarterback as training camp approaches. None of the needs is urgent, but the team is considering its options.

Defensive end is a priority because there isn't much proven talent beyond starters Grant Wistrom and Bryce Fisher. Second-round DE Darryl Tapp and newly signed DE Chris Cooper could help. Cooper was released by the 49ers earlier this year after he missed the entire 2005 season on San Francisco's injured reserve list.

Tight end is an issue because starter Jerramy Stevens is recovering from knee surgery and might not play until the regular season. Veteran TE Itula Mili is getting up there in age and had trouble staying healthy last season.

Adding a veteran corner would also make some sense. The team has not ruled out adding Ty Law, but only if the price is right.

The team will also consider adding a veteran backup quarterback. Such a move would allow No. 2 QB Seneca Wallace to help out as a receiver or punt returner, if needed.

--- The Seahawks will be without numerous players until training camp. The list includes DE Grant Wistrom (shoulder), DT Marcus Tubbs (calf), DT Rocky Bernard (knee), DE Jeb Huckeba (feet), DB Jordan Babineaux (shoulder), WR Darrell Jackson (knee), WR Jerheme Urban (foot), DE Joe Tafoya (shoulder), TE Jerramy Stevens (knee), WR Alex Bannister (clavicle), SS Michael Boulware (knee) and QB Gibran Hamdan (ankle).


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