Around the NFC West: Rams already miss Bruce

Catching up with the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC West as they begin their spring workout schedules and prepare for the upcoming draft.


The Rams opened their offseason program March 25, the first time many players have been together since wide receiver Isaac Bruce was released at the start of free agency.

His departure was duly noted.

"Isaac's a soldier. Isaac's a future Hall of Famer," guard Richie Incognito said. "I'm going to miss him dearly. I know speaking with some guys, we're all going to miss him."

Said cornerback Ron Bartell, "That's the business side of it. We all know we're going to be released or cut one day -- no matter who you are. When you have one of the greats get released, it's a reality check."

What will also take some getting used to is Bruce's return to St. Louis as a part of the 49ers.

Said defensive end Leonard Little, "I can't really imagine him in a San Francisco uniform. Even when we play them, I still won't believe it's him because he's been around here a long time. It's going to be really, really funny seeing him in that type of uniform."

Bruce already is running as the 49ers' starting flanker in the team's spring workouts. The numbers he brings with him from St. Louis border on legendary.

During his 14 glorious seasons in St. Louis, Bruce recorded 942 receptions for 14,109 yards. The latter figure ranks third in NFL history and Bruce ranks sixth all-time in receptions.

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The Rams are getting closer to making a decision on where they will hold training camp this summer.

For the last three years, after nine summers at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill., the Rams have trained at their home base. But coach Scott Linehan wants to take his team out of town and ideally be close to another NFL team for practices.

They had hoped to be at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, which is close to where the Kansas City Chiefs train in River Falls. But La Crosse is renovating its stadium. The Rams targeted Oshkosh and Whitewater, but the latter has also been eliminated. Stevens Point is also a possibility. Oshkosh is just 50 miles from the Packers' training site in Green Bay. There is also a site near the University of Wisconsin-Madison being considered.

Team personnel will visit Oshkosh and Madison in mid-April and will also visit Macomb before making a decision.

Asked about working against another team, Linehan said, "It enhances the competitive nature of training camp. It brings the interest level up 10 times for the players, because we're going against each other all through minicamp and OTAs. They're tired of that. I think it just gets the competitive juices flowing when you're going against somebody else. It's controlled; guys are smart and everything. But it changes the whole approach, and I just like it."

Packers coach Mike McCarthy has talked with Linehan and said he's fine with the teams working together.

"There's always room for good work like that," McCarthy said. "The speed, the competitiveness, it's a good break in camp. The first week everyone is full of (aggression), the second week you get that lull and if you look, most of your wrestling matches are in the second week. You're hitting the same guys and working against the same guys day in and day out."

Packers general manager Ted Thompson noted that, even if the Rams consistently held camp in Wisconsin, any joint workouts would always be in Green Bay.

"The difficulty with our setup is we're never going to take -- or we never have and I doubt if we ever do -- a practice or two practices or a scrimmage away from Green Bay and take it somewhere else," Thompson said. "I think I'd be on very shaky ground if I propose that. So there's no reciprocity."

Reiterated McCarthy, "We have a unique environment, so I'm not going to disrupt that because our commitment to our fans ... we'll never take a team out of Green Bay. I expressed that to Scott."

Herm Edwards said the Chiefs hope something could be worked out with his team. Oshkosh is about 246 miles from La Crosse.

"We'd like to try to get that done if we could do it," Edwards said. "I don't know if (they) have made a commitment to go yet. But if they do, we'd like to try to go practice with them."

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Leonard Little didn't know what to expect. He had undergone toe surgery last season, and was recovering, hoping to re-establish himself as one of the league's top pass rushers. He was also faced with two other realities: Little will be 34 in October, and he was due a roster bonus of more than $7 million at the start of free agency.

The Rams needed cap space, but there was the basic question of whether to invest $7 million in an older player coming off surgery. The club considered all options, and at one point there was talk he would probably be released. Little acknowledged wondering about it.

"I thought about it. I'd spent 10 years here, and it would've been good to end my career here," Little said. "But it's a business before anything else, and I kind of figured that if they were going to (restructure the contract), they were going to do it. If not, then I was going to move on somewhere else. I was prepared either way it went."

Just two days before the bonus was due, the Rams contacted Little's agent and wanted to treat it as a signing bonus. He still got the money, but the cap hit was split over the remaining two years of his contract.

Little is focused on getting back on the field and returning to the form that netted him 13 sacks in 2006.

"I know I can still do it," Little said. "And obviously the team knows I can still do it. It's just a matter of me going out and doing it. Last year, I missed a lot of opportunities for sacks and stuff like that. I don't like to dwell on last year because it's passed, but I missed a lot of opportunities. This year, I just have to capitalize on opportunities and hopefully come out a little better."

As for the toe, Little said it "feels better now than it did before I hurt it. If you would have seen it, my toe was messed up before I hurt it. After the surgery and a couple weeks when the swelling went down, it feels a lot better than it did before I did it. I'm not really concerned with hurting it again because it's going to be a better deal anyway."

"I've been running it, (but) they're really trying to take a slow approach with me. They're really trying to make it come along a little slower. There's no use in rushing, because we're still in the offseason. We're taking it day by day."

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The Rams were awarded a seventh-round compensatory pick in the April 26-27 draft, and it is the final choice, 252nd overall. That means the player the Rams take will be feted in Newport Beach, Calif., in June as "Mr. Irrelevant," the last pick of the draft.

In previous drafts, the Rams have hit on some seventh-round choices, including quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, fullback Madison Hedgecock, guard Mark Setterstrom (who will be competing for the starting center job this summer) and wide receiver Derek Stanley.

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Amid rumors Jeff Wilkins might retire, the Rams signed PK Justin Medlock in January. A fifth-round pick of the Chiefs last year, Medlock made the Kansas City roster only to be released after the first game when he missed a short field goal.

Wilkins did retire, but the Rams signed former Seattle kicker Josh Brown in free agency. Medlock's agent Frank Murtha asked the Rams to release him, but the team refused. The Rams did tell Murtha he is free to seek a trade.

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Aside from potential top picks, other draft-eligible players scheduled to visit the Rams this month include Missouri wide receiver Will Franklin, Notre Dame defensive tackle Trevor Laws, California wide receiver DeSean Jackson, Hampton defensive end Kendall Langford and Toledo tackle John Greco.

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With the second pick in the draft, the Rams have to figure out how to get value from a player that will command a large amount of guaranteed money. With much debate revolving around players like DE Chris Long and OT Jake Long, the Rams wonder if they are true difference-makers worthy of being selected that high.

They have spent a lot of time recently looking at Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston, and are intrigued by his off-the-chart athletic ability.

The Rams also have several offensive linemen returning from injuries, so it complicates the decisions to be made in the coming weeks. They added free agent OG Jacob Bell, and would consider playing Jake Long at guard to start out if he was selected second overall.


The Cardinals didn't exactly dive into the deep end of the free agency pool this offseason. A lack of cap space and the delay in signing Larry Fitzgerald prevented that.

But somewhat quietly, they did shore up their pass rush, which was a weakness in the second half of last season. Starting outside linebackers Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor are back, although both suffered significant injuries last season. Berry missed the last half of the season with a torn triceps tendon, and Okeafor missed the whole year with a torn biceps muscle.

And when the club lost Calvin Pace, Okeafor's replacement in free agency, finding a proven pass rusher was a necessity.

They signed Travis LaBoy from the Titans in the opening days of free agency and signed Clark Haggans last week. Both have proven pass-rush skills. Combined with Berry and Okeafor, the Cardinals now have four veterans that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast can use in various combinations.

The challenge, however, will be keeping all of them healthy. Berry has finished the last three seasons on injured reserve. Okeafor is returning from a serious injury, and LaBoy has a history of concussions.

Many people felt Haggans' play dropped off last year, which is one reason the Steelers felt they could let him go. But as a whole, that group gives the club some decent options. If it can add a pass rusher in the draft, some of the team's depth problem will have been addressed.

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Coach Ken Whisenhunt has been pleased with the attendance in the team's offseason workouts. That should only improve with the recent signings of cornerback Eric Green and defensive end Antonio Smith, restricted free agents who signed one-year tender offers of $2.017 million. Not everything is candy and balloons around the team's facility in Tempe, however. Defensive end Darnell Dockett reportedly wants a new contract and doesn't plan to attend offseason workouts.

There has been no confirmation of that report, but it's true that Dockett hasn't been working out at the team facility as he has in past years.

Team officials are in no hurry to give Dockett a new deal, even though he made it to the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2007. He signed a contract extension less than two years ago, in October of 2006, and the team doesn't have the cap room or the inclination to tear that contract up.

Dockett's deal averages about $4.4 million a year and including a $3.5 million roster bonus last year. He's due to make $3.25 million this year.

He will have to wait in a long line of players who want new deals, including receiver Anquan Boldin and safety Adrian Wilson. In addition, key young players such as cornerback Eric Green and Antonio Smith are due to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2008 season. The Cardinals have more pressing needs than re-signing Dockett, so his patience might be tested.

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QB Matt Leinart is catching heat again after photos of him partying with college girls hit the Internet. Leinart was entertaining at home and by all accounts has worked hard this offseason. Yet, his image took another hit with the pictures. Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he was "disappointed" with Leinart but sees no reason to think Leinart won't be able to lead the Cardinals in 2008.

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The team's scouts are due to arrive at the facility this week and stay through the end of the draft. The Cardinals have the bottom half of their draft board set but usually wait until April to nail down the top half.

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The club will wrap up its preseason schedule with a game against Denver. No surprise there. It's the fifth straight year in which they've finished the preseason against the Broncos. The best news for the Cards is they won't have to travel far in the preseason. The road games are in Oakland and Kansas City. With a regular season road schedule that includes several trips East, the Cardinals wanted to avoid another long trip.

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Fitzgerald has returned from his three-week trip to Brazil and is working out at the team's facility. Parts of the trip weren't that relaxing as Fitzgerald kept in touch while his agent and the Cardinals finalized his contract.

With Fitzgerald signed, club officials can breathe a little easier because they have the cap space to at least put together a complete roster.

They were down to less than $400,000 in cap space before Fitzgerald's deal was restructured. When the deal becomes finalized, management will focus on re-signing some veterans for depth, such as defensive lineman Rodney Bailey and safeties Matt Ware and Oliver Celestin.


The Seahawks finalized their free agency plans when they signed veteran kicker Olindo Mare to a two-year, $3.5 million contract.

Mare will replace Josh Brown, who signed a lucrative contract with the St. Louis Rams at the start of free agency. The question, of course, is whether Mare is going to be given the job or if he has to compete for the position in training camp.

It is believed that Mare did not receive a signing bonus, leading one to believe that Mare will have competition from a rookie. Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell went so far as to say the team may take a kicker late in the draft.

"Nothing is ruled out even though we have signed Mare," Ruskell said. "We like him and we certainly think he is capable of doing the job. We were also happy with what we were seeing in the college market. It depends how that plays out. Again, certainly not something we are feeling like we have to take in the draft. So it depends how that plays out."

Mare made only 10 of 17 field goals last season in a career that has seen his accuracy steadily decrease. He also missed multiple games with injuries.

Ruskell said some of Mare's issues in the past have been about the long snapper/holder/kicker combination, ironic since that is one of the things that was an ongoing issue in Seattle last year -- and still is since they don't yet have a replacement long snapper.

"Here is a guy who is used to a routine with Miami," Ruskell said. "When you start changing that up ... You know, I always underestimated that. You get a snapper, you get a kicker, you get a holder, we should be fine. It is not quite as easy as that. Our example is a great one. Once we solidified that battery, we didn't miss a kick at the end of the year. So we will pay attention to that. And I think that will help Olindo as well."

The Seahawks signed long snapper Tim Lindsey right after the season, but they are likely to sign a college free agent. Ruskell said if the team gets desperate, it can always re-sign 38-year-old Jeff Robinson, a Seattle resident who finished last season as the team's long snapper.

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Though the Seahawks are excited about moving into their new practice facility, they are not going to be able to do it immediately -- which means there is going to be the pain of transition during the preseason.

The Seahawks are moving from their longtime home in Kirkland to brand-new digs in Renton, about 15 miles south on the banks of Lake Washington.

But because they were not sure about construction schedules, they had to commit a year in advance to holding training camp at Northwest College, where their headquarters are located.

That being the case, they are not likely to move into their new practice facility -- which includes indoor fields -- until the second or third week of the preseason, meaning they will have some logistical issues to deal with.

On top of that, they want to re-connect with fans used to seeing the team practices in Cheney, in the Eastern part of Washington. Management is currently having discussions with coach Mike Holmgren about holding one practice a week in Renton to give fans a chance to see some of the team.

Regardless of what happens with the team in August, CEO Tod Leiweke said the opening of the new facility is one of the single biggest improvements the organization can make. Currently, the football side of the organization is in Kirkland while the business side is located in Qwest Field in downtown Seattle.

Leiweke said the pragmatic issues of simply scheduling meetings with different factions of the organization often can be laborious, something that should be cured once all parties are under the same roof.

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Coach Mike Holmgren was the only coach in the NFL not to attend the owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. Leiweke said Holmgren still was recuperating from the season.

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Even though he once fired him, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said hiring Jim Mora to replace Mike Holmgren was a good decision.

"He is a very fine football coach and he is a great guy and I think the Atlanta experience is a very maturing one for him," Blank said of Mora, who went 26-22 in three seasons with the Falcons. "Seattle will be fortunate to have him as a head coach. He has a great relationship with the players, the community as well, and I think he will do a very fine job. Unfortunately things did not work out in Atlanta, from my perspective and from Jimmy's, but we still maintain a good relationship."

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The Seahawks will play Minnesota, Oakland, Chicago and San Diego in their four preseason games. The final game, against the Chargers, will be aired on Monday night.

Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell said running back Shaun Alexander is out of his cast but his surgically repaired left wrist still is in a splint. Ruskell said Alexander will be examined by doctors in the next week. He said a decision still has not been made on Alexander's future.

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The only thing remaining for Ruskell to do before the draft is to negotiate a long-term extension for linebacker Leroy Hill, the third piece of Seattle's talented linebacker trio. However, Hill just switched agents from Bill Strickland to Todd France, so any talks with Hill's representatives are on hold until that relationship has been solidified.

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