Taking stock of the NFC West as summer looms

In Arizona, the Cards appear to have everything going for them with upgraded talent and a new, sold-out stadium. In St. Louis, the long-awaited restructuring of the Rams' personnel department finally happens. And in Seattle, the defending NFC champs decide to take their chances with a young punter after dumping vet Tom Rouen. These and other story lines as the NFC West rolls into summer vacation.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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The Cardinals have won six games and five in coach Dennis Green's two seasons. They now move into a new stadium – a sold-out new stadium in a place that has ranked among the worst in the league in home attendance.

The nucleus of players has been steadily upgraded during three offseasons under Green.

The Cardinals appear to have everything going for them.

In Green's estimation, the biggest thing is familiarity. A year ago, The Cardinals ranked in the top 10 of the NFL rankings in total offense and total defense – Indianapolis was the only other team to crack the top 10 on both sides of the ball – despite the Cardinals having had a league-high 15 players on injured reserve by year's end. "We're healthier right now but I think we just have a better understanding," Green said. "This is Kurt's second year, so he has had a whole season plus an offseason and our objective is to be one of the better offenses. We were one of the better passing offenses but that is not total offense."

Green was referring to quarterback Kurt Warner. Like Green, Warner said after the final team organized workout that he sees improvement, especially up front.

"I see the comfort level of the offensive line, the adjustments they're making, the moves they're making and the way they're working together," Warner said. "From a mental standpoint, I feel a lot more comfortable where we are now than where we were all last season.

"We have such a greater handle on the offense this year. When you're going out there and you're running plays, you're expecting everyone to be in the right place and make the right adjustments. Last year at this time you still were not sure."

Moving the ball up and down the field pads statistics, but the team scored in 3s – kicker Neil Rackers set a league record for field goals – because it could not punch the ball into the end zone. That should change, Warner believes, with an upgraded line and the signing of running back Edgerrin James.

"We all understand we have to be better running the ball," Warner said. "We can't be one-dimensional in the red zone. It's tough because teams play a zone and the holes are tough and it's just tough to work. So you have to able to run the ball. If a defense wants to put everyone back in zone coverage, you have to be able to run the ball."

--- NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was in Phoenix, touring the new stadium that opens in suburban Glendale in August and visiting with Cardinals ownership and management. The new stadium is sold out for 2006. It is to be the site of the 2008 Super Bowl.

"The design is so bold, so striking and so in tune with the landscape out there," Tagliabue said. "I think that it is not only going to be a fun place but a wonderful place to play the Super Bowl."

The Cardinals are tweaking the concept of luxury suites and leasing what they market as "lofts" in the new building.

"It is such a nice thing that the excitement around the stadium and the upswing around the team is coming at the same time," Tagliabue said.

--- The most excitement in on offense, where James and QB Matt Leinart have been added to a group that includes Warner and WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.

"We like the fact that we are strong at the receiving corps and we think with Edge, Marcel (Shipp) and J.J. (Arrington) we are strong at running back," Green said. "I think those are two really good signs. So think we are strong on the offensive line. We've added to it and the guys we have brought back are going to help us offensively and I think we have some good players at the starting position."

--- The Cardinals are promoting Steve Keim to head the college scouting department in a retooling of the operation. Scout George Boone is retiring. Dave Razzano, who was with the Rams for 14 seasons, is Boone's replacement. He will work the western part of the country.

Lonnie Young is being promoted to supervise the west.

--- Green used the accident involving Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger to remind his players to make good decisions away from the game.

"You always want the players to understand that anything they do off the field – whether it be skiing, water skiing, sky diving, motorcycling – there is a certain amount of judgment that has to be used about whether or not a guy should do those things," Green said.

--- Elton Brown, tossed in as a starter at right guard as a rookie last season, took some snaps at right tackle during team organized workouts. Green said it is nothing more than a depth-building move during off-season.

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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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The long-awaited restructuring of the Rams' personnel department finally happened with the hiring of Tony Softli as vice president of player personnel. Softli leaves the Carolina Panthers, where he was director of college scouting since 2000 and had been with the Panthers since their inception in 1995.

In the restructuring of the front office, general manager Charley Armey was reassigned as vice president of pro personnel. Lawrence McCutcheon retains the title of director of player personnel, but he is essentially the college scouting director. Softli will oversee the entire personnel department.

Said Jay Zygmunt, Rams president of football operations, "Tony brings a wealth of talent evaluation knowledge and will work closely with our scouts and with Lawrence McCutcheon and Charley in the coordination of our efforts on the collegiate and professional levels."

"This gives me a chance to run both the college and pro sides of a department," Softli said. "It gives me a chance to work with Jay. With his knowledge of the salary cap, he has a lot to teach me."

The Rams have not had someone run their pro personnel department since Mike Martz was named head coach in 2000. Martz did not believe in advance scouting, but Armey will now head up that effort as he nears retirement.

"We are grateful of Charley's willingness to take on this new role for the organization," said Zygmunt. "Charley's 26 seasons of NFL experience as an evaluator in all areas of the game will be invaluable."

Softli and Rams coach Scott Linehan were on the same staff as coaches at the University of Washington in 1994.

"We got along well then, and I think we laid the groundwork for a good working relationship," Softli said. "I'm ecstatic. I'm leaving a great organization to come to another with a lot of history."

--- Once the Rams made the decision to fire Martz and hire Linehan, a coach with an offensive pedigree, it was obvious the most important decision Linehan would make would be the hiring of a defensive coordinator. To be sure, Linehan came out smelling like a rose.

After Jim Bates rejected a Rams offer, Linehan turned to Jim Haslett. The former Saints coach was unsure at first, but after meeting Linehan and liking his approach, Haslett agreed to be the Rams' defensive coordinator.

It might be the move that means the most for the Rams as they attempt to rebound from a 6-10 season. Players never bought into the system the former coordinator tried to install, and the result was disaster. Now, everyone is on the same page, and Haslett's attacking style should lead to more than the 42 takeaways combined the Rams had over the last two seasons.

On the player front, one of the first of many moves made to upgrade that defense was the signing of linebacker Will Witherspoon. Mostly an outside linebacker in Carolina, Witherspoon is ticketed for the middle of Haslett's defense.

While it could be argued he's somewhat undersized, Haslett believes Witherspoon's speed and athletic ability will make him a play-making force in the middle. As long as the defensive line can keep blockers away from him, Witherspoon should be able to roam the field and plug up a run defense that allowed numerous big plays last season.

Several other defensive signings could be included as the third impact change, but Linehan didn't ignore the offense. A pass-catching tight end has always been a staple of his offenses, and the draft brought two bright prospects: Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd. Their arrivals, on the second and third round, respectively, led to the trade of Brandon Manumaleuna, an under-achiever who refused to work out with the team in St. Louis.

The question will be whether Klopfenstein and Byrd can block at an NFL level, but their presence in the passing game should open up the field even more for receivers Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Kevin Curtis, while also creating a threat in the red zone.

--- The Rams' depth chart at quarterback got larger when the team acquired Dave Ragone from the Cincinnati Bengals. The Rams will give a seventh-round pick in the 2007 draft to the Texans only if Ragone makes the roster.

The timing of the move is odd considering that Ragone, a former third-round pick of the Houston Texans, was waived by Houston in May and the Rams did not put in a waiver claim at the time. Ragone was claimed by Cincinnati and Indianapolis, and was awarded to the Bengals.

He has a connection with coach Scott Linehan when Linehan was a coach at the University of Louisville. The addition of Ragone creates a crowded position with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jeff Smoker already competing for the team's No. 3 job behind Marc Bulger and Gus Frerotte. Rarely, if ever, do teams take five quarterbacks to training camp.

Ragone played in two games in his three seasons with the Texans. He started two games during his rookie season, and completed 20 of 40 passes for 135 yards, with one interception. He ran for 51 yards on six attempts.

The Texans sent him to NFL Europe in 2004 where he played for Berlin and was offensive MVP. He completed 158 of 251 passes for 1,746 yards with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. At one point, he threw 174 consecutive passes without an interception.

--- Following the team's final practice at its recent minicamp, there was a barbecue for players, coaches and their families. The only negative was that the get-together had to be moves inside because of inclement weather.

"It doesn't seem like you ever take time to kind of say hello to your new teammates," Linehan said. "Shoot, I've got coaches' families that I haven't gotten a chance to meet yet. I said from the onset, I want people to feel great about being here, and have a great sense of pride in where they work. And I want the families to feel welcome."

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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The Seahawks' decision to release veteran punter Tom Rouen means the team will enter the 2006 season with its third opening-day punter in as many seasons. The instability has hurt Seattle on special teams.

Rouen, 38, seemed to punt well during the Seahawks' recent minicamp. At the very least he appeared likely to make it through training camp as the veteran alternative to youngsters Ryan Plackemeier and Gabe Lindstrom.

Plackemeier and Lindstrom punted well enough this offseason for the Seahawks to take their chances with less experienced players. Plackemeier enters camp as a seventh-round pick from Wake Forest. He's a massive guy at 6-3 and close to 250 pounds, with the powerful leg to match. Lindstrom spent his spring punting for the Cologne Centurions of NFL Europe. He has gone to camp with the New York Giants in recent seasons, only to lose out in the end to former Seahawks punter Jeff Feagles

. Seattle probably made a mistake by letting Feagles go in the first place. Feagles has dropped 81 punts inside the 20-yard-line in three seasons since leaving the Seahawks. Rouen, Ken Walter, Donnie Jones and Leo Araguz have combined for 73 such punts in Feagles' absence.

Rouen proved to be a suitable replacement for Feagles when healthy, but a severe hamstring injury limited him to only four games in 2004. The team went with Araguz to start last season, a big mistake that contributed to poor field position during the Seahawks' 2-2 start; Seattle was 11-1 after releasing Araguz, less of a coincidence than one might think.

Plackemeier is probably the favorite to win the job this season. Like many young punters, he needs to work on placement and direction. Power certainly won't be a problem. Plackemeier set a Wake Forest record with an 82-yard punt. He also had a 74-yarder. He averaged 56.4 yards per punt in a game against Georgia Tech.

Plackemeier led the ACC with a 47.2-yard gross average as a senior, but he also had a punt returned for a touchdown.

Lindstrom, 30, has been trying to land an NFL job since 2001.

--- The Seahawks endured a shaky start to free agency, only to rebound with two moves that made the team better.

That start saw the team lose left guard Steve Hutchinson, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius and free safety Marquand Manuel in short order. The talent drain fed speculation that Seattle might become the next Super Bowl loser to fall off dramatically the next season.

That line of thinking would have been accurate had the team stood pat. But with more than $20 million in salary-cap space, the Seahawks moved aggressively in signing former Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson of the rival 49ers to a seven-year deal totaling more than $50 million.

Peterson gives the defense the kind of dynamic performer Seattle hasn't had on that side of the ball. He is versatile enough to shut down tight ends in coverage or beat offensive linemen to the quarterback.

Seattle has the luxury of pairing Peterson with Pro Bowl middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and emerging outside linebacker Leroy Hill, a combination that could vault the Seahawks into a top-10 defensive ranking.

Seattle followed the Peterson signing by adding wide receiver Nate Burleson as a restricted free agent from the Vikings. Burleson has the quickness Seattle covets in a receiver. He should boost the Seahawks' yards-after-catch, one of the main reasons Seattle signed him.

--- The Carolina Hurricanes' recent Stanley Cup victory over Edmonton had to hit a little close to home for Matt Hasselbeck. The Seahawks' quarterback was struck by lightning years ago when attending the wedding reception for current Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette. Hasselbeck and Laviolette are both from Massachusetts. Hasselbeck was at the wedding because he knew Laviolette's wife when the two were kids.

"All of a sudden it's lightning and thundering really bad, but we can't see it so we think we're fine," Hasselbeck told the Tacoma News Tribune in a 2001 interview. "All of a sudden, right behind me, whack. I mean, it sounds like it's in your ears. This lightning strike, it comes through my toes, through my knees and back out my toes in a nanosecond. You know how you burn your hand in a fire and say, ouch? I didn't have time to say ouch.

"And then I was like, that hurt so much. But after it happened, it didn't hurt. It hurt for that second that it was in me. Everyone in my table got struck. One guy at my table is out. The caterer starts screaming, 'Get the food, get the food.' The people at the other side of the L have no idea. No idea. Some people saw it. The bartender has like a Coors Light can in his hand and it went flying because he got struck.

"They made us take an EKG of our heart and they checked out the heart rate. ... We were fine."

--- The Seahawks are a deep team, which makes it nearly impossible for NFL Europe players to earn roster spots.

Seattle allocated 11 players to Europe this offseason. It's tough to see any of them sticking around for the long term, particularly after receiver Skyler Fulton and quarterback Gibran Hamdan suffered injuries.

Seattle has allocated 78 players to NFL Europe since 1995. Only 11 of those players have played in a regular-season game for the Seahawks. Of those 11, only quarterback Jon Kitna and linebacker James Logan ever started games for the team (Logan made four starts, but he was mostly a backup and key special-teams contributor).

--- First-round pick Kelly Jennings is making strides as he adapts to a new style following a long college career at Miami, where the Hurricanes played a great deal more man coverage. Jennings began working out full-time in Seattle in mid-May.

"I've made a big step since then," Jennings said. "I'm still thinking and there are still a lot of things I'm trying to get together so I can just play, but I'm far along from where I was."

--- Fourth-year cornerback Marcus Trufant is looking for bigger things this season. He's finally healthy after spending recent offseason rehabbing from shoulder injuries. The work he is getting in offseason camps should translate into better things during the regular season. Trufant, chosen 11th overall from Washington State in 2003, feels like this could be a breakthrough season.

"I feel I have not really underachieved, but I haven't made it to the point where I want to be," he said. "This is the first time in a while where I'm able to work hard and get better."

Trufant has been forced to play catchup in recent seasons because of all the time he has missed at training camp. "It's different in college," Trufant said. "You can be hurt a little and still be pretty good. In this league everyone is so good, so fast, that you want to be at 100 percent. I do have a greater appreciation for health after two surgeries and playing hurt last year and the year before. This year I'm ready."


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