NFC West Not Without Issues Of Its Own

Here is a glance at the player wires from around the division. Looks like the 49ers have big QB issues, and Bryant Johnson is shaking up their receiving corps. The Rams are deep in contract disputes, and the Seahawks might have a player derailed through camp. In Arizona, Calais Campbell is a work in progress, while the Cardinals' main workhorse is ready to battle to regain what was already his.

Arizona Cardinals

WR Anquan Boldin, who remains in a contract dispute with the team, said he is uncertain whether he will attend minicamp without a new deal. Boldin attended the team's mandatory minicamp in May after skipping all voluntary offseason workouts. Boldin's contract runs through 2010 and averages just under $4 million annually, but the team gave fellow receiver Larry Fitzgerald more than $40 million over four years this offseason.

DL Calais Campbell won't contend for a starting job, but the second-round pick out of Miami could be an important part of the team's sub packages. He'll play some at end in passing situations, but his real impact might be as a tackle in nickel situations.

Campbell is 6-8, and that long frame could give offensive linemen and quarterbacks trouble. If Campbell can create a rush inside, or at least gets his arms up, he'll narrow the passing lanes and alter some throws. He put up some solid sack numbers early in his college career, but slipped last year. Campbell admits his technique got sloppy as teams adjusted protections to account for him.

The Cardinals are counting heavily upon line coach Ron Aiken to bring Campbell along. Aiken proved to be an excellent teacher last year, his first in the NFL, so Campbell should blossom under his tutelage.

Chike Okeafor
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OLB Chike Okeafor looked like a natural last offseason when he moved from a 4-3 rush end to a 3-4 outside linebacker. Then he suffered a torn left biceps tendon in the preseason and missed the entire season.

Okeafor participated in most offseason workouts and again looked outstanding. Coach Ken Whisenhunt smiled when a reporter remarked that he had forgotten how good Okeafor looked at that spot a year ago.

"We haven't," Whisenhunt said.

Okeafor seems perfectly suited to the job. He has the skills to rush the passer off the edge, and he's decent enough in pass coverage to take care of tight ends in the flat. Few players work harder than Okeafor, whose training methods are unorthodox, but effective.

San Francisco 49ers

WR Josh Morgan could find it tough to win playing time amidst a receiving corps that features Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson, Arnaz Battle, Ashley Lelie and Jason Hill, Morgan showed some good things during the 49ers' recently completed organized team activities.

At 6-0, 220 pounds, Morgan has good size and the ability to go up and catch the ball in traffic - traits he demonstrated during the non-contact practices. If he gets a chance to show his stuff during the exhibition season, Morgan has a chance to make an impact as a rookie.

DE Justin Smith moved around for the Bengals, but is expected to stay in one place for the 49ers. During the offseason, the 49ers tinkered with all different ways to use Smith. The 49ers employ a 3-4 defense, so they do not want him at defensive line all the time. They want him freed up to run to the ball and make plays. That is why the 49ers spent a lot of time with Smith this offseason working on playing outside linebacker.
Patrick Willis is the top returning sack artist for the 49ers, and he recorded just four sacks. Smith is coming off a season in which he recorded two sacks for the Bengals, but the 49ers feel if he is featured in the defense, he can become a force.

Alex Smith
John Amis/AP

QB Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, is competing against Shaun Hill and J.T. O'Sullivan for the starting job, coach Mike Nolan said. Hill has started just two games in his six-year career. O'Sullivan has bounced around the league since entering in 2002. The 49ers are his eighth team. He attempted his first NFL passes last season with the Detroit Lions.

Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, Nolan said he feels a lot more comfortable with the quarterback situation than a year ago.

"The pleasing part of this is I believe we have three guys who can win a game for us," Nolan said.

Moving forward, he said he would like to see each of the quarterbacks improve on their weaknesses. Smith is the clear front-runner for the starting job, though Nolan declined to acknowledge anyone has an advantage. However, Nolan did say Smith is the most physically talented quarterback on the roster.

"Alex is very athletic, and has the strongest arm probably of all the guys," Nolan said. "He's really intelligent. He's got a lot of good qualities. Those, I count on all the time. Now, he has to put together four quarters with the group and move the ball consistently and make plays he should make."

Seatthle Sehawks

RB T.J. Duckett was given nearly $5 million in guaranteed money as a free agent, but his role has not yet been defined.

Coach Mike Holmgren, in fact, said he is not even sure if Duckett is a fullback or a halfback, though he could play both. He does not know if he will be used in short-yardage situations or goal-line situations.

DT Red Bryant has made an impression simply because he seems to be so much more than the run-stuffing player the Seahawks thought they may have drafted. Granted, no pads were involved in OTAs, but Bryant regularly beat his man and made some plays that turned heads on more than one occasion. He has almost zero technique so the coaches think he can only get better.

RG Rob Sims recently revealed that Solari has been attempting to implement a zone blocking scheme that should allow for the offensive front to be exposed less, as it was last season.

"Last year, we did a lot of man-on-man stuff," Sims said. "This year, we're doing more zone stuff, and that's what (the players) wanted to do last year anyway.

"In the NFL, you're going against the best of the best. When you're man-on-man every single snap, you can get beat. It's one of those things where, if you've got five guys going man-on-man, they're more likely to get beat."

Nate Burleson
Elaine Thompson/AP

WR Nate Burleson is in a spot to produce in 2008. With the Seahawks' receiver corps in a state of flux, the one constant has been Burleson, who had perhaps the most impressive set of offseason mini-camps at a time the team is looking for him to start earning the $7 million a season average they paid him when they signed him from Minnesota.

Burleson had an injured thumb his first year in Seattle, where he grew up, and had flashes of brilliance mixed with inconsistent play last season. This year, though, he is expected to be the first or second wide receiver, lining up at the split-end spot.

While Bobby Engram holds out of mini-camps and possible training camp in a contract dispute and Deion Branch continues to rehab from knee surgery that is likely to keep him out for perhaps half the season, Burleson not only becomes the most veteran wideout on the team, but the one who Matt Hasselbeck is counting on to make the big scoring plays that the team occasionally needs.

"If I hadn't made big plays at this level, it would be harder for me to grasp that concept of me catching more balls or being on the field more," Burleson said. "But since I have been a 10-plus touchdown receiver and put some good yards, there is not too much pressure."

P Ryan Plackemeier could miss part of training camp after he tore his pectoral muscle while lifting weights, requiring surgery. Most of his teammates were wondering why Plackemeier was lifting weights to begin with. Reggie Hodges is the only other punter currently on the roster.

St. Louis Rams

Steven Jackson
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

RB Steven Jackson still doesn't have an agent. Jackson is entering the final year of his contract, and the Rams have been hopeful of getting a new deal signed in time for camp.

However, Jackson doesn't have an agent because Gary Uberstine dropped him as a client about 4-6 weeks ago. It's odd for an agent to set loose a high-profile player, but Uberstine isn't talking about why he did it.

He did tell SportsBusiness Journal, "I assume there will be no shortage of interested agents. He is a phenomenal ballplayer and should be the highest-paid running back in the league. I don't have any bad feelings."

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