Around the NFC West: Top training camp goals
ARIZONA CARDINALS Settle the offensive line: The Cardinals now have a fine 1-2-3 running back combination in Edgerrin James, Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington. They have former MVP Kurt Warner at quarterback and what they believe to be an excellent quarterback in waiting in rookie Matt Leinart. Management wouldn't be keen on seeing any of them maimed as a result of the sort of line play the team suffered through while winning six and five games the past two years. Steps have been taken. Guard Deuce Lutui was a first-day draft pick. Guard Milford Brown was signed during free agency. The team still is trying to assess how, and where, they will fit in, but they bring added value to the group. Guard and center play has been shaky. The team is considering moving starting left guard Reggie Wells to center to compete with Alex Stepanovich. That would open left guard for Lutui as a rookie. Brown figures to start ahead of Elton Brown, who was forced to play as a rookie before he was ready. While the three inside positions appear to have been upgraded, it is likely the team once again will start Leonard Davis, the second pick in the 2001 draft, at left tackle and Oliver Ross, signed as a free agent in 2005 because of his mauler run-blocking reputation with Pittsburgh, on the right. Both were serious underachievers in 2005 and will need to step up their games. The Cardinals moved the ball through the air -- led the league in passing yardage -- but could not get the critical yardage on the ground in third-down and goal-line situations. Consequently, they had the weakest rushing statistics in the league and scored in 3s – kicker Neal Rackers set an NFL season record in field-goal kicking – rather than 7s. That has to change. Settle the defensive line: There are now a multitude of interesting pieces, and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's M.O. has been that of the mad scientist, concocting whacked out schemes, packages and plans. He has had to be clever because the defensive line personnel has been thin as the result of injuries. Pass-sacking phenom Bertrand Berry returns from an injury at right end and Chike Okeafor is a good complement bookend at left end. Depth may be an issue, especially if the team follows through on an encouraging off-season experiment and moves 2003 first-round pick Calvin Pace to outside linebacker, where depth also is an issue. And who lines up between Berry and Okeafor will be one of the most interesting stories of camp. Nose tackle Russell Davis went to Seattle as a free agent. The Cardinals signed free agent Kendrick Clancy and drafted Gabe Watson and Jonathan Lewis. Clancy has NFL experience but Watson has the greatest upside -- if he shuns his dog image and decides to play every down. At under tackle, under sized Darnell Dockett has started his first two years in the league, but largely by default. He is a live-bodied, athletic playmaker but his skills might be better suited at end, where he could fill a critical shortage. Yet he may be too good to keep off the field. Dockett was slated to be the backup to Kenny King when Dockett came into the league in 2004. Then King missed two years because of wrist problems. King now is back, presumably healthy, and if he returns at the level he was at going to camp in 2004 he, too, will be too good to keep off the field. Where Dockett and King land and who wins the nose tackle job will be key to the improvement of a unit that was decimated by season-ending injuries and, consequently, was a sieve by year's end with helpless civilians on the field. Prove to themselves that they are for real: The roster is full of players who would be welcome anywhere – James, Warner, Leinart, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin on offense; Berry, Karlos Dansby, Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle on defense; Rackers and punter Scott Player on special teams. From a personnel standpoint, it is not the same old Cardinals. They move into a new stadium, which is sold out for the season -- this for a team that has been among the worst in the league in home attendance and has had one winning record since moving to Arizona in 1988. Excitement is high in the community and the players are talking a good game. They are saying the right things about how those in the locker room believe, perhaps more than the public, that things are about to turn. But do they really believe it? A great team wins as many games in one season as the Cardinals have won in the last three combined. Attitude in training camp and through preseason will be key. And it will be enhanced by backing words with on-field performance. The team has to hit the practice field from the opening day with a playoff mind-set and show to each other that they really do have what it takes to be a competitive, mainstream NFL franchise. They must smash the culture of losing that so many others who come from winning programs have left in the rearview mirror when they've come to Arizona. Changing that might be the most critical training-camp goal of all. ST. LOUIS RAMS Get everyone on the same page defensively: Jim Haslett is the team's third defensive coordinator in four seasons, and he arrives along with numerous new players after two years of problems with the defense. There will be at least five new starters, and maybe more depending on what happens at cornerback. Defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, middle linebacker Will Witherspoon and strong safety Corey Chavous are definitely new starters. Glover was signed after being released by the Cowboys, while Witherspoon and Chavous were both signed as unrestricted free agents. Not only are they expected to contribute on the field, but their leadership off the field is being counted on. There will be competition at free safety between O.J. Atogwe and Jerome Carter and at strong-side linebacker between Brandon Chillar and Raonall Smith. In addition, Jimmy Kennedy slides over to be the starter at nose tackle. At cornerback, free-agent addition Fakhir Brown and first-round pick Tye Hill will be battling with Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler for starting spots. It won't take much for the defense to improve, but how much will depend on how quickly everyone can blend together. "I'm really happy with the attitude and approach our defense has," coach Scott Linehan said. "I think that's an area we addressed in the offseason with acquisitions and draft picks. You just see a group developing cohesiveness. I think that's the most exciting thing going on around here." Establish who will be the tight ends: The Rams selected Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd in the draft, and each is expected to see significant playing time. Klopfenstein was picked in the second round and Byrd in the third. New coach Scott Linehan likes to include the tight end in the passing game, and both rookies have the skills to contribute. They can get down the field, as well as catching the ball in traffic and the red zone. The question will be how fast they can contribute and whether their blocking ability will be good enough to help the running game. There is no established blocking tight end on the roster for those short-yardage situations that are crucial, but several players will be competing, including Aaron Walker, Alex Holmes and Rod Trafford. Find a left guard: Last season, there were several starters at the position, and it appeared Claude Terrell would be the favorite for the job this season. Terrell started 10 games as a rookie, but needed an off-season of strong workouts to build his stamina and get in better shape. However, Terrell was bothered by a wrist injury throughout the off-season, and did limited work in OTAs and minicamps. That paved the way for Richie Incognito to stake a claim to the job. Incognito did not play as a rookie in 2005 because of a knee injury suffered at the Combine, and he practiced only one day with the team. However, he worked hard in the off-season, and by the June mini-camp was practicing with the first unit at left guard. It now appears to be his job to lose. Veteran tackle Todd Steussie could be in the mix if all other options fail. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS Find out if Ken Hamlin is all the way back: Hamlin hasn't played since suffering a fractured skull last October. He returned to the field for minicamps in May and June, but his first full-contact work will be at training camp. As a rookie in 2003, Hamlin showed great promise as a hard-hitting free safety with range. He suffered through a bit of a sophomore slump in 2004. His career was gaining momentum early last season when Hamlin suffered the skull injuries during a fight outside a Seattle nightclub. For a while it was unclear whether Hamlin would recover from his injuries, let alone resume his career. He has made a remarkable recovery, but no one knows how he'll respond to full-contact work. Will he shy away from big hits? Or will he again become the intimidating presence Seattle has sought in its secondary? Re-develop continuity on the offensive line: The NFL's best line from 2005 returns without one of its best players after three-time Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson signed with Minnesota. Seattle still has lots of experience on the line, but continuity is a concern early. The team needs Floyd Womack to get healthy and stay that way. Womack is a massive man with the size to match up against any defensive tackle. He is also athletic enough to play either tackle position. But with more time in the training room than on the field, Womack hasn't been of much value to the team. He was supposed to be the starting right tackle last season, but a torn triceps tendon changed those plans. The tendon flared up a bit during minicamps this offseason, forcing the team to explore other options at the position. The line will be fine if Womack can get the reps he needs during training camp. But the line will be diminished if injuries force Seattle to play Tom Ashworth or another player at left guard. Prepare for life without Darrell Jackson: The veteran receiver plans to rest his surgically repaired knee as much as possible during camp. There's a chance Jackson will return to form and stay on the field enough to be a factor all season, but Seattle needs to start preparing itself for life without him. Jackson missed 10 games last season. He has never been much of a practice player, often because of injuries. If Jackson misses time against this season, the Seahawks won't have Joe Jurevicius to catch 10 touchdown passes in his absence. The team does expect big things from Nate Burleson, who was signed from Minnesota. A healthy Bobby Engram gives Seattle another starting-caliber player at the position, while the continuing development of D.J. Hackett also figures to help. The resurgence of Peter Warrick could be the wild-card for Seattle. If he returns to the form he showed before knee surgery (and there are indications he might), Seattle might not need Jackson so much.
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