NFC West: Training Camp Goals
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Get rookies up to speed: The 49ers used two first-round draft picks on offensive linemen, and they expect both Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati to start this season. The question is whether the duo can get up to speed quickly enough to start in Week 1. Both Davis, a right tackle, and Iupati, a left guard, were sprinkled in with the first-string offensive line in the spring, but they have yet to displace veterans Adam Snyder and David Baas, respectively. They'll get plenty more opportunities in training camp. Iupati might end up starting before Davis because he is more protected at guard than Davis is at tackle. Something else to consider: The 49ers open the season at Seattle's Qwest Field, one of the loudest venues in the league. That might be a tough place for Davis, a 20-year-old rookie who entered the draft as a junior, to make his NFL debut. The team also would like to get production from second-round pick Taylor Mays, who is the heir to Michael Lewis' starting safety position. Mays likely will be eased into action by seeing time in the 49ers' so-called "big nickel" package.
Find a pal for Patrick: For the past two seasons, Takeo Spikes and Patrick Willis have made a perfect inside-linebacker duo for the 49ers. Spikes' experience has been a nice balance for Willis' youth, and Spikes also has taken on the leadership role that the reserved Willis has been slow to assume. But Spikes, 33, is entering the final year of his contract, and the team is trying to find a long-term replacement who can be the so-called "Ted" linebacker to Willis' "Mike" role. The leading candidates are second-year player Scott McKillop and rookie Navorro Bowman.
The 49ers weren't content with McKillop's development last year -- they didn't think he was physical enough at the point of attack -- which is why they drafted Bowman in the third round. McKillop, however, had a strong spring session. Bowman, meanwhile, has Willis-like speed but hasn't yet proven he can shed blockers in the middle of the San Francisco defense. That will be tested during training camp. If neither of the youngsters rises to the occasion, veteran Matt Wilhelm knows the defense well and can fill in for the short term.
Grow the offense: Following the 2009 season, 49ers players privately complained that their offense was too limited. Play calls were predictable, protection schemes didn't vary throughout the season and the offense didn't become aggressive until the 49ers fell behind by a wide margin. That was due in part because the 49ers were in Year 1 of Jimmy Raye's offense. This summer will be the first since the 2003 season that the 49ers will run the same offense two years straight. The team also switched quarterbacks -- from Shaun Hill to Alex Smith -- in the middle of the 2009 season, and they didn't have receiver Michael Crabtree's services until Week 7. All of those pieces have been in place all offseason, meaning the 49ers have no excuse for not having a more comprehensive and varied attack this year. Targeting Crabtree will be a key toward opening up the running game for Frank Gore and Glen Coffee.
Who's the starter at running back? Justin Forsett and Julius Jones likely will battle it out for the starting job, with Leon Washington fitting in at some point as he works to return from a broken leg that ended his season last year. Forsett averaged a whopping 5.4 yards a carry last season, while Jones has failed so far to live up to lofty expectations, averaging 650 yards a year in two seasons with the Seahawks.
Forsett is considered one of the more elusive backs in the league, but at 5-8, 194 pounds, there are some concerns about his ability to carry the load as an every-down back. Jones is the faster of the two and a more physical runner who can get to the outside. But Jones does not have the vision Forsett possesses. Washington has the most big-play ability of the trio with his explosive speed.
LenDale White was considered the frontrunner to earn the starting job, but the team released him just a month after securing the USC product's services in a draft-day trade with Tennessee.
Coach Pete Carroll cutting someone from his Trojan days served as yet another reminder that he means business in his return to the NFL. Since Carroll's hire in January, the Seahawks have brought in more than 60 different players.
"We're trying to play to every one of our strengths," Carroll said. "And we will never stop looking. That's part of competition, which is the central theme of our program."
Developing a consistent pass rush: The Seahawks tied for 26th in sacks last season with 28, and got rid of two their top three pass rushers in Patrick Kerney (retirement) and Darryl Tapp (trade). Seattle is banking on an improved pass rush scheme and the development of Aaron Curry, Chris Clemons and Nick Reed as legitimate pass rushers off the edge to improve this glaring team weakness.
Creating a good pass rush will go a long ways to improving Seattle's overall pass defense. The Seahawks finished 30th overall in passing yardage allowed, giving up 27 touchdowns through the air with only 13 interceptions (tied for 22nd overall in the league).
Protect the quarterback: Carroll needs to patch together a line that gave up 41 sacks in 2009, 10th worst in the league. Matt Hasselbeck was inconsistent at best last season. But some of his struggles can be attributed to his lack of time to throw in the pocket.
Seattle scaled back the playbook in the second half of the season because of the offensive line's struggles in pass protection, keeping in one of the team's best pass catchers in tight end John Carlson to help protect the quarterback. The addition of first-round selection Russell Okung at left tackle and free-agent addition Ben Hamilton at left guard should help. Also, offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates will include more quick throws and move the pocket around to help ease the pressure on Hasselbeck.
Improving offensive line play in passing situations should help jumpstart an anemic offense that averaged just 17.5 points a contest last season, 25th in the league. Seattle's problems offensively began early in games. The Seahawks were outscored in the first quarter 100-37 for the season, the fourth-worst negative margin in the league.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Get Bradford ready: The Rams didn't select quarterback Sam Bradford with the first pick in the draft to have him sit in the bench. That said, Bradford will have to show during training camp and preseason games that he has a command of the huddle and enough knowledge of the offense to not only manage the game, but be a leader. Coach Steve Spagnuolo has stuck with the mantra that he will play the quarterback that gives his team the best chance to win. Of course, he has to balance that with getting Bradford onto the field because every snap will get him closer to the player everyone expects him to eventually become.
A.J. Feeley enters training atop the depth chart, and his experience in the offense gives him an edge in terms of always knowing what he's doing. Feeley also understands his role and that while wanting to play, he's keeping the seat warm for Bradford. Throughout the offseason, Feeley has been a help to Bradford as he learns. Looming large in the eventual decision is the state of the offensive line and running back Steven Jackson's health.
Keep the offensive line healthy: The Rams have had a continuous string of bad luck on the line dating back several years, and they need some stability and continuity to have any chance of offensive improvement. There have been numerous different combinations during the last few years, with it being a rarity that the same line plays for any meaningful stretch of games. The Rams have attempted to lock down the edges with the selection of tackle Jason Smith in the first round last year and Rodger Saffold this year.
However, the bad luck didn't take long to begin. Smith suffered a knee injury in the second game last season, then missed the final six games because of a concussion. In OTAs, he suffered a stress fracture of the toe and his availability for the start of training camp is uncertain. Saffold missed time in the OTAs because of a knee injury. In addition, left guard Jacob Bell also injured a knee and guard/center Mark Setterstrom suffered a torn triceps that is expected to cost him the entire season. At the end of OTAs, there were six injured linemen on the sideline.
Find a pass rush: Spagnuolo's defense is predicated on pressure and changing blitzes, but it can be difficult to be effective if the offense rarely scores and the opposing offense is rarely in obvious passing situations. Still, productive pass rushers have to be developed. It seems unlikely that defensive end Leonard Little will re-sign, so Chris Long is currently at left end. Long had all five of his sacks in the final nine games last season, and it is expected his comfort level with the defense will take off this season.
James Hall is the other end, but there is hope that a young rusher will emerge from a group of three players selected after the fourth round: Hall Davis (fifth), Eugene Sims (sixth) and George Selvie (seventh). Inside, second-year defensive tackle Darell Scott and veteran Chris Hovan should contribute push in the middle.
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