NFC West Training Camp: Players to Watch
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN TRAINING CAMP
Defensive end Kentwan Balmer: The former first-round draft pick has been an underachiever in the first two years of his career. He's still behind Isaac Sopoaga on the depth chart at left defensive end, and he missed most of the offseason program thus far while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Standing 6-5, 315 pounds, Balmer is the most prototypical 3-4 defensive end on the roster, but he has been inconsistent and coaches still don't trust him as a starter. This is shaping up as a make-or-break year for Balmer. The man who drafted him, Scot McCloughan, no longer is with the team.
Wide receiver Kyle Williams: The sixth-round draft pick is the smallest receiver on the team, but he possesses something no other 49er has: true quickness. Williams gets up to speed immediately and he is very fluid in and out of breaks. The 49ers envision him as a slot receiver in the Wes Welker mold, but his initial impact likely will be on special teams. The team is searching for a reliable punt returner, and Williams will get plenty of chances to win that role in training camp.
Fullback Brit Miller: Miller played well on the 49ers' coverage units late last season, and there's a chance he could unseat veteran Moran Norris to become the team's starting fullback. Miller was a decorated middle linebacker at the University of Illinois, but teams deemed him too small and slow to play that position in the NFL. However, he plays with real grit and passion, and he loves to hit. The 49ers have been happy with his progress, and he could be a nice fit in the team's power-running offense.
Hot seat: Veteran receiver Brandon Jones was the 49ers' most expensive free-agent acquisition in 2009, but he finished the season with exactly one reception. That was partly due to a broken shoulder suffered in training camp last year but perhaps more a factor of his inability to impress position coach Jerry Sullivan, who holds a lot of sway in the offensive meeting room. The 49ers brought in two more receivers in the offseason, Ted Ginn Jr. and rookie Kyle Williams, meaning that there aren't a lot of spaces at the position. What's worse -- Jones already has missed practice time this spring with a sprained ankle and he is due to earn $2.145 million this year.
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN TRAINING CAMP
Running back Julius Jones: In two years in Seattle, Jones has failed to live up to high expectations when he signed a four-year, $12 million deal to replace Shaun Alexander two years ago. Jones has only averaged 681 yards a season his first two years in Seattle. And he now finds himself in a tough battle for the starting job with Justin Forsett and Leon Washington.
Linebacker Leroy Hill: The 27-year-old missed most of the team's offseason workouts because the team chose to keep him away from Seahawks' headquarters while he dealt with legal issues. Hill likely will be suspended for a game or two this season for violating the league's personal conduct policy after receiving a sentence of 12-months probation for a marijuana drug possession charge in Atlanta. Hill also faces competition for his weak-side outside linebacker position from David Hawthorne on the field.
Wide receiver Mike Williams: After a year hiatus from the NFL, the former first round pick has been one of the major surprises during offseason workouts. Williams could be the big target Seattle is looking for in the red zone, but he has to prove he can stay in shape and make plays during preseason action once training camp starts at the end of this month.
Hot seat: Defensive end Lawrence Jackson has been a disappointment so far during his tenure in Seattle. Now in his third season, the former first round pick is hoping that reuniting with former head coach at USC Pete Carroll can rekindle his dominant play off the edge that he experienced in college. But he'll have to regain his starting job first, with converted defensive tackle Red Bryant passing him up on the depth chart to claim the starting, strong-side end position during the offseason.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN TRAINING CAMP
Quarterback Sam Bradford: Obviously, he will be watched closely. Bradford made progress during OTAs learning the offense and all the details of playing it. In training camp, he will be looking to show the coaches he will be ready to start the season opener, and a large part of that will be showing his teammates he is capable. A fast learner, Bradford is also looking to show that he can adjust from the spread offense he played in college to the West Coast offense used by the Rams.
A.J. Feeley enters camp as the starter, and he has a leg up because he played in the system while with the Eagles when Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was the quarterbacks coach. During the spring, Bradford displayed the accuracy necessary to run the offense. In camp, he'll have to also show he can be a leader.
Wide receiver Donnie Avery: The first receiver selected in the 2008 draft, Avery has shown flashes of what the Rams expected, but hasn't been able to stay healthy or be consistent. He believes two factors will make this a breakout season.
One is that he spent the early part of the offseason before the Rams' program began working out in Houston and altering his diet. Avery added weight, but didn't lose any speed, and he hopes the increased strength will limit the injuries he has experienced. Two is the fact that after learning two offensive systems in his first two seasons, now he is in the same system for the second consecutive year and was able to spend the offseason focusing on getting better rather than having to learn a new offense.
Defensive end Chris Long: Like Avery, he is now in the same system for the second consecutive season for the first time. In 2008, when he was the second overall pick in the draft, he was also making the switch from a 3-4 defense in college to a 4-3. Long has been steady against the run since his rookie season, but hasn't established himself as a consistent pass rusher.
However, he had five sacks in the last nine games of the 2009 season as he grew comfortable with coach Steve Spagnuolo's defense. He worked exclusively on the left side during offseason work and expects as much from himself as coaches expect from him this season. Said Long, "My best games last year I want to be every game this year."
Hot seat: Left tackle Jason Smith. It might be unfair to create a hot seat for a second-year player, but Smith is one of the biggest keys to any improvement the Rams' offense will experience this season. He started only five games last season because of a knee injury and a serious concussion, and then missed time in the offseason because of a toe injury. That's three injuries in eight months.
His switch to left tackle led to the trade of Alex Barron, and he is the considered the present and future on the line after being the second overall pick in the draft last year. Stated simply, he has to stay on the field.
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