Around NFC West: Catching up in free agency

Taking a look deep inside the camps of the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC West, with free agency and personnel updates.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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Down to their last couple million of salary-cap dollars in free agency, the Cardinals still hope to land a blocking fullback and a veteran tight end to complement talented tight end Leonard Pope, who started last season as a rookie.

The Cardinals also lost starting left tackle Leonard Davis to Dallas in free agency and have not signed a replacement.

They've said they likely will move former right-side starter Oliver Ross to the left and leave 2006 starter Reggie Wells on the right. Ross thrived in Pittsburgh under line coach Russ Grimm before Ross came to the desert as a free agent two years ago. Grimm came to the Cardinals as the top offensive assistant to new coach Ken Whisenhunt this year.

With the fifth pick in the draft, the team also is in position to draft one of the top two tackles in this year's field -- Joe Thomas of Wisconsin, if he miraculously falls that far, or Levi Brown of Penn State.

The Cardinals are talking to free-agent Terrelle Smith, who was cut by Cleveland, to fill the Cardinals' need at fullback.

But after whiffing on their initial runs at veteran tight ends, it is beginning to appear that the Cardinals might have to settle for another rookie to develop along with Pope, a 6-foot-8-inch athletic talent who appears to have tremendous upside.

The team has signed the likes of running back Edgerrin James and pass rusher Bertrand Berry among its recent free-agent hauls.

This season, even though the Cardinals had a sizable wad available under the cap when free agency began, they haven't landed the big-name headliner.

Instead, they've gone for the New England Patriots-type of role player -- solid, smart, tough, affordable. The Patriots built their title teams with those types of bargain-basement specials. With the first month of free agency nearly gone, that type of precise shopping becomes a two-way street, according to the Cardinals.

"You get to the point where the players and their representatives realize the big paychecks are not going to be out there," said Rod Graves, Cardinals Vice President of Operations. "They are looking for the situations that appeal to them most."

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The chance to go to a Super Bowl is a dangling carrot the Cardinals can use to goose their home gate. It has worked for two years and they may well have it to use for three more.

Season ticket holders are placed in the lottery for Super Bowl tickets. University of Phoenix Stadium was sold out in the inaugural 2006 season and is expected to be sold out again in 2007, despite the team posting a five-win record and firing the coach. Arizona hosts the Super Bowl next February at the year-old facility in Glendale.

The sudden swing in home gates comes on the heels of the Cardinals drawing 30,000 or so regularly during their days playing in Sun Devil Stadium. That is due not only to the new stadium being spectator friendly and to the Cardinals continuing to improve their roster but also in large part to a chance to go to the Super Bowl.

A successful 2011 Super Bowl bid likely would assure the Cardinals of another three sold-out seasons.

It also would eliminate one excuse for a team that has had one winning record in 24 years. With that increased revenue, it can be a major player in free agency. For years, the team cried poor when it was a tenant at Sun Devil Stadium, saying it could not compete financially.

The Glendale City Council will vote Tuesday (March 27) on whether to support a bid for the 2011 Super Bowl. The city will host the game next season at year-old University of Phoenix Stadium.

Glendale leaders were hesitant to bid for another game without yet having hosted the first and knowing exactly what they are getting themselves into financially.

But without a sign-off from Glendale, the Arizona committee likely would not submit a bid by the rapidly approaching April 4 deadline.

After discussion last week, it appears there is enough support on the council to approve a run for another Super Bowl.

The new retractable-roof stadium and all the new hotels, shopping, dining and entertainment venues under construction nearby to complement the high-end resorts that already exist in the Phoenix area make Arizona, with its warm winters, a strong contender to become a regular western site in the Super Bowl rotation.

San Diego has held that position, but its aging stadium now relegates it to second place.

"We're being asked to host the party every three years and foot the bill," Glendale Councilwoman Joyce Clark said.

The city wants some assistance from the state for its $3.5 million share of expenses, and some assurance from the league that it will receive return on its investment by being awarded some of the weeklong ancillary activities, such as the NFL Experience.

"The whole state can win," said Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs. "To just put this on the backs of a community ... is bad for Arizona."

The economic benefit to Arizona from hosting the Super Bowl is estimated to be $400 million, a good chunk of change to have coming in every three, four or five years.

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QB Matt Leinart never has been confused with the speedy, athletic breed of quarterbacks who threaten to change the nature of the position. But Leinart, a classic dropback passer, recently took second place to a plodding dairy cow.

It wasn't exactly a footrace, though. When Leinart visited a Phoenix elementary school recently as the grand prize from a statewide breakfast content sponsored by the Dairy Council of Arizona, the school kids initially were far more interested in the cow than in Leinart, a former Heisman Trophy winner who set a slew of Cardinals rookie passing records after moving into the lineup during last season.

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The team has redone its weight room at the Tempe training headquarters, and the off-season program is now under way. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has told the players that he is very big on having them work out together at the facility.

Some, like RB Edgerrin James, however, continue to get their free pass. James works out at his home in Florida during the off-season.

The team has not only a new weight room but also a new strength and conditioning coach, John Lott.

"Most of them have been training, but they haven't been trained. There's a difference," Lott said.

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Mike Miller was promoted to receivers coach from offensive quality control coach before he'd ever coached a down. Hired a month ago, Miller moved up after receivers coach Richie Anderson, who also had yet to coach a down, was fired following his arrest on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute in a Phoenix police sting operation.

Dedric Ward, who played eight years in the league with five teams as a receiver and return specialist, was hired as offensive quality control coach. Ward has coached only two years since retiring as a player -- one with the Chicago Bears and one with Missouri State.

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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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Eyebrows raised recently when the Rams moved quickly to sign tight end Randy McMichael, who had been released by the Miami Dolphins. Hadn't the Rams used second- and third-round picks last year on tight end Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd?

Yes, they had, but coach Scott Linehan, who was Miami's offensive coordinator in 2005, will do whatever he can to make his team better.

"I think adding Randy McMichael, arguably one of the better tight ends in the league as a starter, to be able to add him to the mix along with Joe, who is a very good young tight end who we are very happy with, I think you can never have enough quality football players on your team," Linehan said. "There's not a player on the team that will be unhappy if we are having success on the field."

Said quarterback Marc Bulger, "McMichael has been doing it for a long time. We'll get Joe up to speed. That will be one of our strengths rather than a place where we have problems with depth."

Also signed by the Rams from the Dolphins is backup running back Travis Minor, and he extolled the virtues of McMichael.

Said Minor, "He's a guy that day in and day out, the attitude and work ethic he brings to the table, he's a guy that you definitely want. The fans will love him; he's one of those emotional guys out there. He's a leader. He's a natural born leader whether it's on the field, during practice when nobody is looking, or if it's during the game. Randy is a fun guy to be around across the board."

The Dolphins released McMichael before having to pay him a $3 million roster bonus, but he was still surprised by the move.

"I'll be honest with you and say yes," McMichael said. "It was really a shock to me and my family, but it's the NFL. You have to always prepare yourself for it. I am not upset about it; I'm having a great time so far. I am just excited for a new start."

What also shocked McMichael was the weather in St. Louis when he arrived. He said, "It's so funny. It was 87 (degrees) when we left and we get here and it's snowing. It's an adjustment and it's one of those things with a different climate. I've had to adjust to a lot of different things in my life, though, so this is no big deal."

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It's suddenly crowded at the tight-end position, and Dominique Byrd knows he's under the microscope after an arrest last season on an assault charge and then an arrest in early March on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Byrd reported for the start of the team's off-season program March 19 and told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "I just have to go into this off-season knowing that I'm going to work hard every day and make strides, and hope for the best. I'm just staying positive and focused on my workouts."

He has talked to coach Scott Linehan about the incidents, and added, "There's been nothing negative said. ... I'm a young guy, and there's always going to be bumps in the road. But I think they'll make me stronger in the end."

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The Rams signed linebacker Chris Draft to a three-year contract. A versatile player, Draft has started 71 games in his career, and can play position. Last season, he had 111 tackles and 5.5 sacks, starting 16 games, with 14 at middle linebacker.

"We didn't promise him anything when it came to the position," coach Scott Linehan said. "But he's a proven player who has come in and played at a high level when he's been called upon to start. Certainly we're going to play the best 11 players on defense. He's a three-position player. He's started actually at different times in his career at all three spots. He made an impression on us, certainly, when we played them."

In a Panthers win over the Rams in 2006, Draft had 1.5 sacks.

Admitting that he would have preferred to stay in Carolina, Draft said, "It's hard because it's not something where I wanted to move. I know there is a benefit to having things in place and knowing your teammates and knowing the scheme. But at the same time, to be appreciated sometimes you have to move on."

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Coach Scott Linehan made it official that the team will hold training camp at their own headquarters.

Said Linehan, "We're trying to tweak some things to make it more fan friendly. I think it's still a work in progress. Parking certainly is an issue based on where our location is. But it's a great setup for us as far as the hotel (being) close (and) being able to use our facilities here."

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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The free-agent picture has become clearer for the Seahawks heading into the draft. The team still might add a veteran offensive lineman, but the big spending in free agency appears largely finished.

Seattle added safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell after giving up too many big plays last season. With Grant and Russell onboard, the Seahawks showed no interest in re-signing former starter Ken Hamlin, who took a one-year deal with Dallas.

Seeking to upgrade the pass rush, a longstanding concern for the Seahawks, team president Tim Ruskell added former Pro Bowler Patrick Kerney from the Falcons while releasing Grant Wistrom.

The Seahawks added Marcus Pollard after determining that the 35-year-old tight end hadn't lost his quickness. Seattle's first choice was Daniel Graham, the best player at the position in free agency, but the Broncos were willing to pay more for his services.

Seattle was already heading in a new direction at tight end when Arizona police arrested former starter Jerramy Stevens on DUI and marijuana charges. Ruskell made Stevens' departure official when he confirmed that the 2002 first-round choice would not return. Pollard is the favorite to start despite his age.

"That was my concern, too, but when you watch the tape from last year, the guy still has his quickness, he is still a tenacious blocker and he still has good hands and he has not been an injury guy during his career," Ruskell said.

Seattle then re-signed veteran receiver Bobby Engram, a move that was surely welcomed by quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and coach Mike Holmgren. Both have come to rely upon Engram for clutch catches, particularly on third down, although age and injuries have limited Engram more recently.

‘ Engram, 34, missed part of last season with a thyroid condition. He returned late in the season and contributed in the playoffs. His knowledge of the offense could be valuable if the Seahawks trade starter Darrell Jackson.

The offensive line still needs addressing. Seattle re-signed versatile veteran Floyd Womack, who has talent but lacks durability. Womack has played every position on the line except center. Bringing him back was important after the Seahawks failed to land Kris Dielman in the first days of free agency.

But Ruskell said the team needs veteran help at the position even if the Seahawks were to add one or two more linemen in the draft. The team is talking with long-time starting guard Chris Gray, but he turns 37 in June and isn't a long-term answer.

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Coach Mike Holmgren wishes the best for troubled TE Jerramy Stevens, who has played his final game for the Seahawks. The team was heading in another direction at the position even before Stevens was arrested on DUI and marijuana charges in Arizona.

"I have come under the gun in years past about not taking a harder line with some of our players, but people don't really know what goes on behind the scenes," Holmgren said. "I like him personally. I think when he was healthy and played for us, you couldn't ask for a harder worker and he did a nice job for us as a player.

"I always think, though, if you get in too many jams, you have to deal with life issues more then the athletic issues, and I would say the same thing about him."

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NFL teams routinely sell naming rights for stadiums. The Seahawks recently sold rights to their new practice facility. The Virginia Mason Athletic Center is scheduled to open in June 2008. It's all part of the team's new headquarters, to be located about nine miles south of the current site.

"The VMAC will allow our organization to consolidate into one facility, attract and retain free agents and bring training camp back home," CEO Tod Leiweke said. "(We) strive to be at the top of our profession and this partnership helps accomplish that goal."

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Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is "ahead of schedule" in his rehabilitation from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. That was the word from Ruskell. The team expects Hasselbeck to do some throwing at May minicamps before making a full return in June, before training camp.


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