Around the NFC West: Defensive outlooks
ARIZONA CARDINALS Simply getting players back from Injured Reserve is going to make the Cardinals' defense more effective in 2006 – and even though it was reduced to fielding helpless civilians at many positions by year's end, it still finished in the top 10 in the league last season. Getting Pro Bowl pass rusher Bertrand Berry, 2005 first-round draft pick cornerback Antrel Rolle and starting middle linebacker Gerald Hayes back on the field is a good start. Tackle Kenny King, a projected starter in 2004, is coming back from two years away because of wrist injuries. The Cardinals augmented a growing nucleus of playmakers by signing free-agent tackle Kendrick Clancy and drafting tackles Gabe Watson and Jonathan Lewis. The team also is trying a move with 2003 first-round draft pick Calvin Pace in an attempt to resurrect his career and get some return on investment. He was a bust as a rookie starter with one sack in 16 starts, lost the job in 2004, began to make a comeback last season and then suffered a season-ending arm cut in a non-football incident at home that nearly cost him his roster spot. Pace has been moved from defensive end to outside linebacker on the strong side. "Like I tell people, it's not hard, it's not like playing corner or safety," Pace said. "It's basically time on the job. I think the true test will be in training camp and preseason games." Early returns in team organized workouts are favorable, coaches say. Pace would back up Karlos Dansby, who will be pushing for Pro Bowl consideration after a big 2005, and give the team options in scheming. "You remember the days of Broderick Thomas, guys who could play the 'Sam' linebacker and then when it's time to rush the passer could stay in the game?" coach Dennis Green said. "It gives us another speed rusher." The newcomers and returnees complement Dansby and strong safety Adrian Wilson on a unit that while ranking among league leaders couldn't make the critical stop when needed. The influx of tackles in particular should now make the unit better equipped to give the ball back to the potent offense. ST. LOUIS RAMS Very little will be familiar when the Rams' defense takes the field this summer. Most notable is a new system and attitude implemented by new coordinator Jim Haslett. Players never bought into the system run for two years by former coordinator Larry Marmie, but the talent level was also deficient. The team spent the offseason upgrading the players. There will likely be at least five new starters on defense, led by defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, middle linebacker Will Witherspoon and strong safety Corey Chavous. Brandon Chillar, a returning player, will compete with free-agent addition Raonall Smith at strong-side linebacker. Rookies from last season, O.J. Atogwe and Jerome Carter, will vie for the job at free safety. Jimmy Kennedy moves to nose tackle to replace the departed Ryan Pickett. At cornerback, injured starters Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler are back, but they will receive stiff challenges from first-round pick Tye Hill and free-agent addition Fakhir Brown. If Fisher and Butler are healthy, the depth at corner should be better than it has been in a while. Ronald Bartell, a second-round pick last year at cornerback, will also see some time at safety. Depth should also be better on the defensive line. Behind Glover is third-round pick Claude Wroten, while veteran Jason Fisk will see time in the rotation with Kennedy at nose tackle. The Rams were victimized last season by the decision to go with rookie punter Reggie Hodges. His abysmal performance against Seattle in an early-season home game led to a crucial defeat. Bryan Barker solidified things after Hodges was cut, but the Rams elected not to re-sign Barker, instead signing Matt Turk, who missed the 2005 season with Miami because of a groin injury. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS The Seahawks expect their defense to challenge for a top 10 ranking this season. Those expectations are valid unless injuries continue to deprive the team of important players up front. The overall strength of the defense improved as a direct result of left guard Steve Hutchinson's departure to the Vikings in free agency. Once Hutchinson was gone, the Seahawks decided to invest their resources in linebacker Julian Peterson, a former two-time Pro Bowl choice with the 49ers. Peterson said he's close to 100 percent after playing last season in a diminished capacity following surgery to repair a torn Achilles' tendon. It's not every year that a Super Bowl team has the resources to add one of the more dynamic defensive players in the league. Seattle was already strong at linebacker with Pro Bowl pick Lofa Tatupu in the middle and Leroy Hill coming off a 7.5-sack season as a rookie in 2005. But with ample salary cap space, the Seahawks moved aggressively in securing Peterson with a contract that could be worth more than $50 million over seven seasons. "Julian Peterson has the ability to take our defense to the next level," Seahawks president Tim Ruskell said. The Seahawks' strength up front could hinge on whether Rocky Bernard, Marcus Tubbs and Grant Wistrom bounce back strong from offseason surgeries. Bernard and Tubbs are starting-caliber tackles. Both could be sidelined through the start of training camp. If healthy, they'll form a solid group inside with Chuck Darby, Craig Terrill and newcomer Russell Davis, who is healthy again after missing most of last season with an arm injury. Injuries are likewise a key variable in the secondary. Free safety Ken Hamlin appears fully recovered from head injuries that threatened his career less than a year ago. But he has not yet participated in full-contact work, so it's a bit early to think he'll be a solid player all season. Strong safety Michael Boulware could miss the start of camp after undergoing ankle surgery in late February. The team added veteran safety Mike Green in a trade with Chicago, and Jordan Babineaux could be a factor at the position once he returns from shoulder surgery. Babineaux might also factor into the situation at corner. He's a versatile player with the range to play any position in the secondary. The team hopes he isn't needed at corner. Veteran Marcus Trufant and first-round rookie Kelly Jennings are the projected starters, with Kelly Herndon penciled into the nickel role. "I think on paper we are a little stronger," coach Mike Holmgren said. "On defense, certainly with Russell Davis, Julian Peterson, Mike Green and Ken Hamlin, right away on paper we're stronger. Now they got to play. "Then you throw in our young guys we drafted, both (second-round defensive end) Darryl Tapp and Kelly Jennings, the early draft choices you expect to contribute sooner -- without putting too much pressure on those guys, they both look good, and I would expect them to be contributors this first year." Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said he though the defense was noticeably improved at recent minicamps. "With Leroy Hill and Lofa Tatupu, those guys are a year more experienced and they're playing a lot better," Hasselbeck said. "Having Julian Peterson over there is a different kind of guy. We've never had a guy like that, who's got versatility, who can do a lot of different things. "With Kelly (Jennings) out there now, he's new, so he's playing a different style, technique. He's a good player. He's learning. It's just a little bit different, but more than anything I've noticed how much faster our defense seems to be playing."
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