Around the NFC West: Key players to watch

As training camp begins throughout the NFC West, here are key players to watch on the rosters of the 49ers' three divisional opponents.


Defensive end Calais Campbell: He's expected to take over at right end, replacing Antonio Smith, who signed with Houston in free agency. A second-round pick in 2008, Campbell played in all 20 games as a rookie but didn't start. He was a capable rotation player, although he didn't register a sack, and was decent on special teams, too. Much more is expected this year. The Cardinals don't have much experience at end, so there is a considerable amount of pressure on Campbell to perform. Coaches seem confident he'll come through. At 6-feet-8, Campbell's long frame should be an asset as both a pass rusher and run defender. His long arms can create problems for quarterbacks looking for passing lanes, and he should be able to hold off run blockers. Just as important, Campbell is bright and a hard worker. If he fails, it won't be because of laziness. The Cardinals need him to come through. Behind him are Kenny Iwebema, also a second-year player, and Keilen Dykes, who spent last season on the practice squad.

Running back Tim Hightower: He showed more than flashes of ability as a rookie last year. He was effective near the goal line and in other short-yardage situations, while displaying an ability to make big plays, too. But he also had too many negative runs and averaged just 2.8 yards a carry. Part of the poor average could be attributed to his role as short-yardage back, but there's no question Hightower struggled when he took over for starter Edgerrin James in the eighth game. Coaches went back to James late in the year, and there was a noticeable improvement in the run game. Hightower is the favorite to win the starting job, but he's going to be pushed by Beanie Wells, the first-round pick. Wells needs to prove he's versatile enough to play on every down. At Ohio State he rarely was asked to catch the ball or block, and he'll need to do those things for the Cardinals. Hightower has the advantage in those areas.

Nose tackle Gabe Watson: He never recovered from an offseason knee injury and struggled throughout the 2008 season. Watson's injuries, along with the lack of progress by backup Alan Branch, caused the Cardinals to scramble to fill the job. Veteran Bryan Robinson, more suited to playing end, started all but one game and played well. If healthy, however, Watson brings superior size and strength to the position. He eased back into action during off season workouts and Watson is expected to be 100 percent for camp.


Cornerback Tye Hill: A first-round pick in 2006, it is forgotten that Hill played well when he became a starter during his rookie season. A lot was expected of him the following season, but two freakish injuries derailed him. First, it was a fractured transverse process suffered in a practice collision with safety Oshiomogho Atogwe prior to the second game of the season. He missed four games, then suffered a dislocated wrist, forcing him to miss the final four games of the season. Last year, it was a knee injury that cost him 12 games. With a new coaching staff, Hill has a chance for a fresh start, and he could be a key component if the secondary is to improve. Entering training camp, he is considered a starter opposite Ron Bartell.

Defensive end Leonard Little: It's been awhile since Little was healthy for a prolonged period of time and able to sack the quarterback as he is capable. The new regime parted ways with a number of veterans, but Little, who will be 35 in October, was brought back. In 2006, he had 13.5 sacks while playing all 16 games. The following season, a serious toe injury limited him to seven games, and necessitated season-ending surgery. He had just one sack, and it was on that play that he aggravated his toe problem.Last season, he limped off the field early in the season opener with a hamstring injury, and managed to play 14 games, many of them with the muscle torn. He started just five games, and had 6.0 sacks. But, 4.5 of those sacks came in a three-game stretch, which was the healthiest he was all season. It's expected he will likely be used in a rotation to preserve him and utilize his rushing ability.

Left tackle Alex Barron: Contrary to popular belief, Barron has reduced his false-start penalties the last two seasons and has been a better player than the general perception. He is too inconsistent, but is a rarity among the team's linemen in that he has started every game the last three seasons. Following the offseason release of Orlando Pace, Barron was moved from right tackle to the left side, where he played for 15 games in 2007 when Pace suffered a season-ending injury in the opening game of the season. It is the position he played in college at Florida State before being placed at right tackle after being a first-round pick in 2005. Generally considered a player that lacks passion, Barron has the opportunity this season to elevate his game on the all-important left side as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. However, if there is no salary cap in 2010, he won't have enough accrued seasons to be an unrestricted free agent. Still, he can put himself in demand with consistency and solid play.


Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck: The longtime Seahawks quarterback will turn 34 in September. He finished 2008 on injured reserve with a bulging disk, playing a career low seven games. In games he did play Hasselbeck was ineffective, finishing with a league-low 57.8 passer rating. On the year, Hasselbeck completed 109 of 209 passes for 1,216 yards, with five touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Hasselbeck says he's healthy now, and has looked good during offseason workouts. He's still getting acclimated to new offensive coordinator's Greg Knapp's version of the West Coast offense. Knapp will give Hasselbeck more leeway to call plays at the line of scrimmage, getting Seattle in the best play possible. The Seahawks felt confident enough in Hasselbeck's health that they passed on a chance to draft a franchise quarterback in USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, who ended up with the New York Jets. Seattle also has a capable backup in Seneca Wallace, but having Hasselbeck at the controls for an entire season certainly improves the team's chances to rebound from last season's dismal 4-12 record.

Defensive end Patrick Kerney: The team's best pass rusher, Kerney's 2008 season was cut short when he opted for season-ending, shoulder surgery. It was the second consecutive season Kerney had to go under the knife to have his shoulder repaired. With Kerney out, the Seahawks struggled to generate a consistent pass rush. The Seahawks attempted to address their concerns with the defensive line by adding some beef up front, signing free agent defensive tackle Colin Cole from Green Bay and trading linebacker Julian Peterson to Detroit for versatile defensive lineman Cory Redding. Seattle also added a new defensive line coach in Dan Quinn, who worked with head coach Jim Mora in San Francisco. Quinn expects to see more improvement from young defensive ends Darryl Tapp and Lawrence Jackson, but Kerney returning to Pro Bowl form will help this unit get back to where it needs to be.

Running back Julius Jones: The first season in Seattle was so-so for Jones, as Holmgren played Maurice Morris in favor of the ex-Dallas Cowboys back toward the end of the season. But Seattle's change to a zone blocking scheme, with its emphasis on a one-cut, downhill runner, should benefit Jones' running style. Sharing the backfield load with bruising runner T.J. Duckett should help keep Jones fresh. However, there is pressure on Jones to live up to the expectations of his three-year, $11.8 million contract.

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