Around the NFC West: Offensive outlooks
ARIZONA CARDINALS Job 1 for the Cardinals was rebuilding a running game that ranked last in the league. Opposing defenses now undoubtedly will take Edgerrin James, the team's key offseason addition, seriously. And to lead the way for one of the premier running backs in the game, the Cardinals signed free-agent guard Milford Brown and drafted guard Deuce Lutui. Brown appears destined to start on the right side. Lutui could start on the left, depending on the fate of veteran Reggie Wells, who is coming off an ankle injury and could move to center. "That's really been our emphasis this year, to make sure we build a running game and figure out what we do well," said quarterback Kurt Warner. "Keep the right guys in position up front to allow them to succeed, and we think that's going to cure our red-zone woes more than anything." The line underachieved and was perceived as the root of the rushing woes on a unit that led the league in passing even though foes knew the Cardinals had to throw the ball. To coax more out of it, the team hired a new line coach, Steve Loney, who has preached that he's ripping the rear-view mirrors off the group and focusing on what's ahead: blocking for one of the game's premier backs while protecting Warner to allow him to throw to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. "I look at the potential," James said. "I see I have two receivers and I know what type of back I am. If we get the line on the same page we're going to move the ball down the field." Two other key players were drafted. One should have great impact this year and one probably won't, but likely will have great impact over time. Tight end Leonard Pope - all 6-feet-8 and 265 pounds of him - has athleticism, speed, hands and blocking skills. He will be hard to keep off the field and should be a dazzling complement to James, Fitzgerald and Boldin going up the seam. That is a dimension the Cardinals have lacked for years at a position that had been all but forgotten. And rookie quarterback Matt Leinart, the 10th pick overall in the first round, won't play much this year unless Warner is injured or struggling. Leinart is biding his time, learning the offense and the league, and should be the franchise quarterback for many years to come. Initially, Leinart might not even be No. 2. He will compete with John Navarre, whose praises coach Dennis Green has been singing for two years. ST. LOUIS RAMS Despite having been one dimensional, the Rams' offense ranked in the NFL top 10 last year. But with the balance of the running game and the renewed ability to convert in short-yardage and goal-line situations, it appears the unit has been retooled to put points on the scoreboard. New coach Scott Linehan knew there weren't a lot of changes needed on an offense that was still productive during last year's 6-10 season. The Rams ranked ninth overall and fourth in passing despite having quarterback Marc Bulger miss four games. The biggest change is the offensive system. With Mike Martz off to Detroit, Linehan, along with coordinator Greg Olson, have implemented a new system that will still be aggressive, but will also give the quarterback the ability to audible. The verbiage, while new, won't be as lengthy and difficult to absorb as was the case with Martz's offense. One of Linehan's moves was to bring in Gus Frerotte as the backup to Bulger. Frerotte started 16 games for the Dolphins in 2005 where Linehan was the offensive coordinator and led the team to a 9-7 record. Tight end will be a position of big change. Under-achiever Brandon Manumaleuna was traded on draft weekend to San Diego after the Rams selected Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd on the second and third round, respectively. Linehan loves to throw to the tight end, and the hope is both rookies will contribute. The question is blocking, one area the Rams are still looking at as training camp approaches. Depth on the offensive line was acquired with the signing of tackle Todd Steussie, who can also play guard, if necessary. In the draft, the Rams selected guards Tony Palmer and Mark Setterstrom. However, depth at running back is still a question. Tony Fisher of the Packers was signed as a free agent, but it remains uncertain whether Marshall Faulk will retire or play this season. If Faulk retires, the Rams will likely be in the market for another back. Former Vikings runner Moe Williams visited the team in late May. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS The NFL's highest-scoring offense returns with Pro Bowl players at the three most important positions. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, MVP running back Shaun Alexander and left tackle Walter Jones give eighth-year coach Mike Holmgren the strongest offensive foundation in the league. All of which guarantees nothing. "This is not the team that played in Detroit in the Super Bowl," Hasselbeck said following a recent minicamp practice. "We lost some guys from that team, and we gained some new guys. "This team that's out here today hasn't won any games and we haven't lost any games. This is a brand new team, but we feel like we are a really good team on paper." The Seahawks must replace three-time Pro Bowl left guard Steve Hutchinson and veteran receiver Joe Jurevicius, who proved a lot of people wrong by catching 10 touchdown passes last season. Hutchinson left for the Vikings after signing a controversial offer sheet packed with a poison pill that essentially prevented Seattle from matching. Jurevicius once appeared likely to return, but he could not pass up a chance to sign with his hometown Browns. Losing Hutchinson and Jurevicius hurts. Both were outstanding players and rock-solid people in the locker room. On the flip side, Seattle's offense is certainly strong enough to overcome the loss of a guard and a backup receiver. The addition of receiver Nate Burleson might actually upgrade the position. He was a 1,000-yard receiver for the Vikings in 2004. Injuries and an ineffective offense hurt him last season. Seattle expects Burleson, only 24 and a Seattle-area native, to give the team needed yards after the catch. Burleson will most likely start opposite flanker Darrell Jackson, who should be ready for the season after resting his surgically repaired right knee for several months. Trusty veteran Bobby Engram will then reassume the No. 3 role he filled so capably before becoming a starter last season. Engram ranked among the league leaders in receptions through six games last season, only to suffer a painful rib injury during an overtime loss at Washington. He still finished with 67 catches. Health is probably the biggest concern in the passing game. Jackson missed 10 games to injury last season. Engram missed three. Burleson had knee problems two years ago. And tight end Jerramy Stevens, a potentially dominant player despite his costly drops in Super Bowl XL, won't practice until mid-August after undergoing knee surgery. The running game will remain solid unless Shaun Alexander takes the money and jogs. Alexander signed a fat contract during the offseason. The team is counting on him to play with the focus he showed during his MVP season in 2005. Up front, Seattle will try to replace Hutchinson with capable backup Floyd Womack. The arrangement looks good on paper because Womack is a starting-caliber player (he was the starting right tackle heading into last season). The big question, again, is whether Womack can avoid the injuries that have kept him out of the lineup in past seasons. The team signed former Patriots lineman Tom Ashworth as insurance, but it's tough to imagine the career right tackle as a long-term replacement at guard.
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