Around the NFC West

Will Alex Smith finally realize his potential in San Francisco? Does Charlie Whitehurst have a chance at winning the starting quarterback job in Seattle? How will Steven Jackson's back surgery impact the Rams' offense? Find out these answers and more inside.


SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Whether he emerges as a solid starting quarterback this season remains in question, but Alex Smith has one nagging obstacle out of the way. For the first time in his career, Smith has the same offensive coordinator for back-to-back seasons.

The previous turnover -- five coordinators in five years -- would undermine any quarterback, but the constant change has been particularly hard on Smith. The thoughtful type, Smith needs to intellectualize a playbook before he can turn it loose on the field.

And until he gets it, he's tentative with his throws and with his command of the huddle. His reserved nature was such a problem at times last season that coach Mike Singletary approached Smith and urged him to be more vocal.

As Singletary recalled it, Smith responded by saying: "Coach, in all honesty, I can give you everything that you want. I know that I can do it. I just need a little continuity. I'm still trying to learn some of the things that we are doing. Once I get it, I promise you I will show you that I can take command of the offense."

So far, it looks as if Smith is delivering on his promise. During the recent organized team activities, the sixth-year quarterback was noticeably more in charge of the action. In one memorable early-practice session, Smith gave a tutorial to the rest of the offense about adjusting pass protection in third-and-long situations.

Smith read the defense, barked out communication to center Eric Heitmann and redirected a play. How did he handle the same situation last year?

"Most of it was: 'I hope I'm right and if not, then I'll scramble to my right,' " offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye said, smiling.

Smith fared fine last season after taking over as the starter, throwing 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and compiling an 81.5 passer rating. But the 49ers will need more from him if they are to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season.

Raye, like Singletary, thinks the quarterback will be better equipped to handle the mental side in 2010. He thinks that Smith, for example, will be able to direct traffic in big third-down situations when he's operating out of the shotgun. Raye pointed to the way Peyton Manning and Tom Brady thrive in similar situations because of their understanding of the offense.

"The final call goes to the quarterback because there are some things, in assessing the top of the defense, that the center can't see," Raye said. "At a certain point, it falls into the lap of the quarterback."

Smith faces no major competition for the starting job this season, with David Carr brought in only as insurance. Between that and his improved understanding of the playbook, Smith clearly feels more comfortable. This is the first time since Greg Knapp (2002-04) that the 49ers have retained an offensive coordinator from one season to the next.

"It's a completely different mindset," Smith said. "I'm absolutely confident in my protections and what's expected of me. I know when I can take my shots, when I can gamble a little bit."

NOTES

  • Impressed by his handling of the draft, the 49ers promoted Trent Baalke to vice president of player personnel. The job comes with a four-year contract and more responsibility but stops short of giving him general manager duties.

    Team president Jed York, in announcing Baalke's promotion, said that coach Mike Singletary will retain final say over the 53-man roster. Some of the other lines of power are gray, which means some of the decision-making will be done by consensus.

    Baalke acknowledged: "I think people get way too caught up in the term 'general manager' and what that states. I think from the draft, free agency, the final 53, the cuts, all that stuff, when you look at the broad scope, it's a team effort. Someone ultimately has to make the final decision, but there's a lot of thought put into it and a lot of other people involved in the decisions that are made."

    For Baalke, it's been a rapid rise. The 49ers hired him as a Western Region scout in 2005 and promoted him to director of player personnel in 2008. Baalke was abruptly thrust into the spotlight just five weeks before the draft when the team parted ways with general manager Scot McCloughan.

    The team liked the way Baalke handled the process, including his selections of tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati with first-round picks.

    "I thought there was great communication between the coaching staff and scouting staff, great internal communication," York said. "And I think it's going to continue."

    So why not promote him to GM? While Baalke has an extensive scouting background, he's fairly new to the business side of budgeting and contract negotiations. Paraag Marathe, the team's vice president of football operations, remains the 49ers' lead negotiator, just as he was during McCloughan's reign.

    Baalke inherits the same title McCloughan had for three seasons before being promoted to GM. York indicated Baalke could be on the same career path.

    "Trent is a great talent evaluator. He's meticulous. He's very organized. He's great at putting a staff together," York said. "He's still learning some of the other pieces of the business that will ultimately put him as a general manager. I want to make sure that we don't put too much on Trent's plate as he continues to grow in his role."

  • The 49ers' punt-return candidates struggled during spring workouts. Ted Ginn Jr., acquired in a trade with Miami, dropped so many during one ragged practice that coach Mike Singletary summoned him to the sideline for a long, one-way chat. Nothing is settled at that spot, but Singletary said: "Ball security is the number one thing. I don't care how fast he is. I don't care how many guys he can make miss. If he can catch the ball, that's step number one."

  • In a technicality, receiver Isaac Bruce remains listed on the roster. But the 49ers see no scenario in which the veteran is back and have already given his No. 88 to new tight end Tony Curtis.

  • Brandon Dale, a 15-year-old cancer patient from Santa Clara, visited 49ers practice wearing a Patrick Willis jersey. Willis sought the kid out when he came off the field and signed countless autographs for Brandon and his family.

  • Left guard David Baas took some snaps at center during OTAs. With first-round pick Mike Iupati poised to take a starting job soon, the team wants to see what Baas looks like at another position.


    SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

    Seeing new quarterback Charlie Whitehurst on the practice field executing the team's new offense for the first time confirmed what Seahawks' head coach Pete Carroll already believed -- he can play.

    "I feel very comfortable with him with the offense," Carroll said. "He seems to have a sense for it. He's not lagging behind any of the learning at all. Charlie has a terrific arm and a nice release and all that kind of stuff. The physical stuff is there. Up to this point Charlie has done everything we've asked of him, and I think he's confident in what we're doing right now.

    "But it's going to come down to playing time and to see how he does, and how he handles game situations."

    That's the key issue for Seattle. The 27-year-old out of Clemson has never thrown a pass in a regular-season game in his four years in the league. And his preseason numbers are nothing to write home about.

    In preseason action Whitehurst has thrown for 1,031 yards, completing 53 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's also been sacked 13 times.

    Carroll said that he expects Whitehurst to play a lot this upcoming preseason, and again reiterated one of the reasons the team made the trade for Whitehurst with San Diego is the Seahawks see him as a future starter.

    "We think he can become a starter and be a heck of a football player," Carroll said. "We love the fact that he can move. He's got good feet and mobility. So there's nothing but upside at this point, but there are going to be challenges once he gets out there. But so far he's done very well."

    That said, Carroll emphasized Matt Hasselbeck is still the starter.

    "I'm real pleased with Matt being the quarterback right now and being in the lead position in it," Carroll said. "I have been from the start and I've never wavered on that. However, we're trying to make it as competitive as possible, and trying to push Matt to make him better and elevate Charlie's game as well. And that's the way we're doing it. So it will always be a competition in my mind."

    Although San Diego's offense led by head coach Norv Turner has traditionally been more about pushing the ball downfield, and the West Coast offense is based on the short passing game, Whitehurst said both offenses have elements of the short and vertical passing game. Whitehurst also said the transition to Jeremy Bates' West Coast offensive system has not been as severe as expected.

    "There's not that much of a difference," Whitehurst said. "You're still trying to put points on the board."

    Whitehurst's physical tools are obvious. He's got an excellent arm and easily generates velocity on the ball. He has a quick release, and moves well inside the pocket. But there have been times when he appears to be thinking through his reads and does not process the offense as quickly as Hasselbeck.

    That's to be expected. Hasselbeck already knows some of the terminology from his years playing in Mike Holmgren's version of the West Coast offense, and is ahead of the game in terms of knowing protection calls, blitz reads and just the overall philosophy of the offense.

    However, Whitehurst said he's feeling more comfortable with the offense with each snap he takes in practice.

    NOTES

  • Seahawks' linebacker Leroy Hill still has not participated in the any of the team's offseason workouts, as head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider continue to excuse him from team activities while Hill deals with legal issues.

    Asked if he expected Hill to be on the team this season, Carroll said: "I am hoping he will be. We need to see what that all means, but we'll figure it out when the time comes."

    Hill appeared in Issaquah municipal court this week for a scheduled pretrial hearing in front of Judge N. Scott Stewart. The 27-year-old linebacker faces a misdemeanor charge of assault for his role in a domestic dispute at his Issaquah home on April 10.

    Hill's attorney, Jon Fox, submitted a motion asking for a continuance, which was granted. Another pretrial hearing has been scheduled for June 11 at 9 a.m.

    According to a representative of the municipal court, a victim's advocate asked on behalf of the victim that a no-contact order keeping Hill away from the victim be lifted. Hill's attorney agreed with the request, but the prosecutor did not, and Stewart determined the order will remain in place.

    Keeping close tabs on the situation thousands of miles away is Brian Fortner, solicitor-general for Douglas County, Ga.

    Hill's run-in with the law in April was his second in a little more than a year. And it came just 10 days after he received a sentence of 12 months probation for misdemeanor drug possession for a Jan. 24, 2009, incident in which he was found asleep at the wheel by police in suburban Atlanta and marijuana was discovered in his car.

    Fortner said Wednesday that if prosecutors in Issaquah move forward with their case against Hill, he will likely file a motion to revoke Hill's probation, which would include a hearing that would require Hill's presence in court in Douglas County.

    "I would say the odds are now that we are probably going to move forward to remove his probation," Fortner said. "It doesn't matter who you are, you need to be on your best behavior. That's the reality."

    Fortner said he will continue to monitor the situation, talking with prosecutors in Issaquah in the near future in order to help make his decision.

    "We've been in contact with them and we are expecting to hear from them this week to help determine exactly what we are going to do," Fortner said. "It's disappointing that he got that charge that soon, so he's probably going to have to come here to Georgia to account for his behavior."

  • The Seahawks signed veteran quarterback J.P. Losman this week to fill the team's third-string quarterback position.

    Seahawks' general manager John Schneider said Losman had an unbelievable workout for the team, which eventually led to Seattle signing him to a one-year deal worth $630,000.

    Losman, 29, fits the mold of quarterback that Schneider likes -- a big, strong guy who can move. The 6-foot-3, 220 pounder out of Tulane was drafted in the first round as the No. 22 pick overall in the 2004 NFL draft by Buffalo.

    However, Losman never translated his physical talents to wins on the field for the Bills, finishing with a 10-23 record in Buffalo. Losman spent 2009 with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the UFL before finishing the season with Oakland.

  • With Seattle signing Losman the writing was on the wall for second-year quarterback Mike Teel. The third-string quarterback was waived from the team's active roster this week.

    A sixth-round pick in 2009 out of Rutgers, Teel did not see any regular-season action for Seattle. But he completed 20-of-41 passes for 238 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception in preseason action for Seattle last year.

    Teel said goodbye to Seahawks fans via twitter: "Thanks to everyone in Seattle. All of you have been great, I enjoyed my time here."

  • So far, so good for Seattle's revamped offensive line. Seattle drafted rookie Russell Okung with the team's No. 6 overall pick to play left tackle after Walter Jones announced his retirement.

    Sean Locklear has been moved from left tackle to his more natural right tackle position, while veteran Ben Hamilton has been brought in to mentor Okung and play left guard. Chris Spencer has been moved to his more natural center position from right guard, and second year player Max Unger is filling in at right guard after playing center the last three games in 2009.

    "The right side has been looking great," said offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. "Max has been looking strong and is doing everything we heard he could do. He's really into the game and loves football and wants to max out. Every day, he's very consistent.

    "And Sean (Locklear) is back to his natural position at right tackle, which he has played extremely well in the past. He looks natural there. Watching him is great to see because he looks so strong. And then Chris Spencer at center is the captain of the line. He's working hard, has all the calls down and he's going to be running this line and leading them to exciting levels this season."

  • Seahawks vice president of player personnel Ruston Webster is leaving to join the Tennessee Titans in a similar job.

    It's a place Webster almost ended up three years ago, losing out to current Tennessee general manager Mike Reinfeldt for that position. Webster was hired by former president and general manager Tim Ruskell in 2006, and served as Seattle's interim general manager when the team fired Ruskell in December.

    Webster was considered for the position, but once the team hired John Schneider, Webster retained his position of vice president of player personnel, while Will Lewis was elevated from director of pro personnel to vice president of pro personnel.

    Along with Reinfeldt, Tennessee's director of pro scouting Lake Dawson also worked for the Seahawks.

    The Seahawks also promoted Scott Fitterer to director of college scouting and Eric Stokes to assistant director.


    ST. LOUIS RAMS

    He is a spectator at the team's OTAs, which started this week. But running back Steven Jackson has no doubt he'll be ready to go when the Rams begin training camp at the end of July.

    Jackson had surgery on April 15 to repair a herniated disk in his back, an injury that affected the final stretch of the season as he continued to play despite the shooting nerve pain he was experiencing.

    Asked if he felt immediate relief following the surgery, Jackson said, "Well, from the nerve pain, yes. Now what we are working on is strengthening my core and my back muscles. The back feels good. I'm staying in shape. I'm in the pool. Though I'm not on the field running and cutting, my wind is still here. I make sure I get in the pool. That allows me to keep my endurance up and allows me to stay in shape. I've adjusted (to not being on the football field) in that kind of way."

    When the season ended, Jackson hoped that rest would solve the problem. It was a close call when it came to deciding to have surgery. In the end, it was his decision.

    "The surgery really was up to me," Jackson explained. "I decided to have the surgery because I was still in the grey area on needing the surgery and not going with the surgery. I met with three specialists around the country. No one said definitely get the surgery, but looking at the season and being able to fully recover from the injury and being able to go for training camp, April was kind of the deadline so that I could have a full recovery in June and have six solid weeks to get ready for training camp, then training camp all the way to September 12 for the Arizona Cardinals."

    Jackson was told the usual recovery time is six-to-eight weeks. Eight weeks would be in time for the start of the team's minicamp June 10, and the final OTA is June 17. But the Rams won't take any unnecessary chances.

    Said coach Steve Spagnuolo, "Hopefully, he'll get some OTAs at the end, but we're not going to push anything. We're going to tread lightly. He's done great. He's rehabbing. He's doing everything you can do except be out here and do the football."

    Looking back on the games he played with the injury, Jackson admitted that, "It was really tough. Going back and looking at the film, it was just certain moves and certain plays that I couldn't make that I could normally make. The pain, it was there. I can't say it wasn't there, it was there all the way through surgery. It's a different type of pain. Muscle pain I've been able to deal with, but nerve pain is something that just doesn't go away. And anybody that's dealt with back pain knows, it's a different monster."

    And, when it's time to play football, Jackson said he won't be any different than he's always been.

    "I play with reckless abandonment, so whenever the time comes for me to suit up, I'll be ready," he said. "I'll play football the only way I know how. I wouldn't be doing myself justice if I didn't play my game. What you get is what you get when you see me. I don't need to come in and feel timid about anything."

    NOTES

  • Because of the shoulder injury he suffered last year at Oklahoma, questions about QB Sam Bradford's durability were frequent prior to the draft. Some of those questions appeared to be answered at the scouting combine in February when Bradford weighed in at 236 pounds, 13 more than his listed weight last season.

    However, he was down to 228 when he weighed in at the rookie minicamp two weeks ago.

    Asked if he plans to get back working out to get his weight higher, Bradford said, "I think the weight I'm at right now, probably between 226 and 230 is probably the weight I want to play at. I came in at 236 at the combine just to prove to people that if they felt I needed to be bigger, I could be bigger. Obviously, I'm going to work with our strength and conditioning staff here; work with the coaches. Whatever weight they want to be at, I'll be at."

  • It was only the first day of OTAs, and while the question throughout the spring and summer will be whether rookie quarterback Sam Bradford is able to earn the starting job, when the first snaps were taken Tuesday, A.J. Feeley was the first-string signal-caller.

    Asked about the first-team reps, coach Steve Spagnuolo said, "Right now, A.J. Feeley is getting them all, and then Sam and Keith (Null) kind of mix in with the 2s and 3s, and that won't change until ... somewhere in there we'll give both Sam and Keith some reps with the first group just to get them used to it, but right now, all the reps are evenly split. It's not like the 1s are getting more than the 2s or 3s. You want everyone to get a chance."

    Running back Steven Jackson, who was a spectator as he rehabs after back surgery, noted the "definite new feel" with the new quarterbacks.

    Said Jackson, "With A.J. one, you can see the leadership and you can see he has the offense down pat. He knows what he is doing, and he is going to be good for us and he's going to be good for Sam."

    As for Bradford, Jackson said, "It's up to coach to make the call, but you can see why he was the No. 1 pick. You can see the arm strength, the accuracy and his intellect. He's really a smart guy. All the quarterbacks we have here, they all deserve to be here and it will be very interesting to see how things play out."

    Bradford is glad to have someone with experience in the offense like Feely to lean on at times.

    "He was very helpful today," Bradford said after his first practice with veterans on the field. "Obviously, he's very familiar with this offense and I'm just excited to watch him and Keith both practice because I know they're both familiar with this offense. They both have way more experience than I do, so to watch those guys and get a better feel for how this offense works and what it's supposed to look like; I think that's going to help me tremendously."

  • During the conditioning part of the offseason program last week, left guard Jacob Bell experienced some knee issues while running. Bell had an MRI, and underwent arthroscopic surgery Tuesday to repair what Spagnuolo referred to as "loose bodies."

    Said Spagnuolo, "He's had, I think, before he came here he had an issue with it, and it was more of a cleanup than anything else. But it was bothering him and we figured we'd do it now."

    Spagnuolo said Bell should be fine in four-to-six weeks. That will likely knock him out of the OTAs, but he should be ready for the start of training camp at the end of July.

  • WR Mardy Gilyard, the team's fourth-round pick, was robbed at gunpoint Monday night (May 18) outside a gas station near the University of Cincinnati campus. Gilyard had stopped for gas and snacks after returning from a fishing trip over the weekend with his brother and a friend.

    By NFL rule, Gilyard can't be at the Rams' OTAs until after June 12 when Cincinnati has graduation exercises.

    After the incident, Gilyard said, "I am OK. Just upset, you know, more than anything. It's part of living in the city. I know from my experiences in the city when it warms up -- as soon as it warms up -- the grimy cats in the city come out. I wasn't paying attention to my surroundings as much as I should have been.

    "I'm just glad I get to go to training camp. I had that thing pointed at my head. I could have been paralyzed or brain dead or killed. I'm truly blessed to still be here talking to you."

    The robbers got away with about $300 in cash and two necklaces said to be worth $500 each.

  • Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, an unsigned restricted free agent is not in attendance at the OTAs and continues to rehab his shoulder in California.

    Asked where Atogwe is in his rehab and if there has been communication with him, Spagnuolo said, "I talked to O.J. -- it's been a little while now, I'm going to guess a month ago -- and he looked like he was doing good to me. He says he's doing great. The reports are he's doing really good, but I have not seen him in a while so I don't really know."


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