NFC West: Unit-By-Unit Breakdown
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Alex Smith.
Backups -- David Carr, Nate Davis, Jarrett Brown.
The uncertainty about Smith ends this season. The former No. 1 overall draft pick is in the final year of his contract. Either he'll prove himself as the team's future quarterback or he won't be back next year. The biggest reason for hope is that Smith has some semblance of continuity for the first time in his career. He's in the second year of Jimmy Raye's offense, the only time he's had a chance to run the same system two years straight. Smith is athletic, accurate and tough, but he has yet to take control of the team despite his draft status and despite five years in the league. More than anything else, Smith needs to show true leadership. Carr was signed in the offseason to take over if Smith is injured or falters. With a solid running game and a good defense to support him, there is no reason Carr couldn't guide the 49ers to the playoffs in a weak NFC West. Davis has the best arm and instinct of all the quarterbacks but has been slow to pick up the offense. Brown is a project.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Frank Gore, FB Moran Norris.
Backups -- Glen Coffee, Anthony Dixon, Michael Robinson, FB Brit Miller, FB Jehuu Caulcrick.
The 49ers take a very simple approach to running the ball, and that's reflected in their tailbacks. The top three players all are tough, one-cut runners who don't have a lot of speed but who run with power. Gore has been injured in each of the last three seasons, but he shouldn't be underestimated. He is still the most feared offensive weapon on the team and he is still more than capable of rushing for 1,500 yards. Coffee added more weight in the offseason to better complement his hard-charging style. Dixon is another big back who runs like a smaller man. He must learn to be more decisive and run with a lower pad level. Of the fullbacks, gritty former linebacker Miller has a chance of displacing Norris, who had an off year last season.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Vernon Davis.
Backups -- Delanie Walker, Nate Byham, J.J. Finley, Tony Curtis.
Davis is entering the final year of his contract, but it's not as if he needs more motivation. He's one of the hardest working players on the team, someone who transformed himself from a terrible pass catcher to the NFC's touchdown receptions leader (he tied with Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald) last season. Davis finally is in a system that utilizes him as a receiver, and his speed and size have made him one of Smith's favorite targets deep over the middle. There is not an inside linebacker in the league who can keep up with him. Walker is a talented pass catcher who has improved as a blocker, and the 49ers love to use Davis and him in the same formation. Byham was brought in to do one thing -- block. He's expected to hold off Finley and Curtis to be the team's third tight end.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan.
Backups -- Ted Ginn, Jason Hill, Brandon Jones, Kyle Williams, Dominique Zeigler, Scott Long, Jared Perry, Bakari Grant.
Crabtree doesn't have elite speed, he's not a leaper, and you wouldn't describe him as an overly big receiver. But he is very fast in and out of breaks, and he has long arms that snatch the ball in front of defenders. He also is going through an NFL offseason program for the first time after sitting out last season's with a foot injury and a contract impasse. He will build on a solid rookie season, and his overall production only will be limited by the run-first approach of the 49ers offense. Morgan is the strongest receiver on the team. He's an excellent downfield blocker and is good for one long pass play a game. The 49ers brought in Ginn for his elite speed. He won't be asked to be the go-to receiver like he was in Miami, but the 49ers believe his speed will help soften the defense for the running game. Williams, a rookie, is the quickest receiver on the team and has a future in the slot.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Joe Staley, LG Davis Baas, C Eric Heitmann, RG Chilo Rachal, RT Adam Snyder.
Backups -- RT Anthony Davis, LG Mike Iupati, T Barry Sims, T Alex Boone, G Tony Wragge, C Cody Wallace, G Chris Patrick, G Brian de la Puente, T Matt Kopa.
This unit allowed 150 sacks over the last three seasons, the worst in the NFL. That's why the team spent both of its first-round picks on offensive lineman. How soon Davis and Iupati are inserted into the starting lineup depends on how quickly they progress this summer and how well Snyder and Baas are playing ahead of them. Davis struggled with his stamina early in spring practices but seemed to improve by the end. Baas, who is entering his contract year, has talent but has been hurt at inopportune times. Staley and Heitmann have Pro Bowl potential while Rachal has underachieved thus far. The most intriguing prospect is Boone, who has cleaned up his off-the-field issues and transformed his body. He is competing with veteran Sims for one of the back-up tackle positions. Wallace, a fourth-round pick in 2008, might be in trouble. Both Baas and Wragge also can play center.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Isaac Sopoaga, NT Aubrayo Franklin, RE Justin Smith.
Backups -- NT Ricky Jean-Francois, DE Kentwan Balmer, RE Ray McDonald, DE Demetric Evans, E Derek Walker, NT Khalif Mitchell.
This is one of the more underrated units on the team. Franklin had his best season last year and Smith went to the Pro Bowl. One problem spot is nose tackle. Franklin got the franchise tag this season, and the 49ers were hesitant to sign him to a long-term contract. Jean-Francois is the top backup, but the second-year player has never played the position. The 49ers want more production from Balmer, a former first-round draft pick, who mostly backs up Sopoaga at left end. Balmer is the only player on the team with prototypical size for a 3-4 defensive end, but he has not been consistent and he played last season with a torn labrum.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Manny Lawson, ILB Patrick Willis, ILB Takeo Spikes, WLB Parys Haralson.
Backups -- SLB Ahmad Brooks, ILB Navorro Bowman, ILB Scott McKillop, ILB Matt Wilhelm, ILB Mike Balogun, ILB Keaton Kristick, WLB Travis LaBoy, WLB Diyral Briggs, WLB Martail Burnett.
This is the heart of the 49ers' roster. The team's philosophy on defense is to take away big gains and allow the speedy linebackers to clean up anything thrown underneath. Willis has been a tackling machine since he was drafted 11th overall in 2007, and he's led the league in tackles in two of three seasons in the league. He's aggressive, fast and his speed is only augmented by his instincts. Spikes is a good complement to Willis but he's in the final year of his contract. Lawson is not the pass rusher the 49ers hoped for when they drafted him, but he's fast and makes a lot of plays sideline to sideline. Haralson and Brooks are the top pass rushers. Those two, along with Lawson, rotate throughout the course of the game. Haralson has long arms and excellent strength, and he gets most of his sacks through pure hustle. Brooks is more physically talented and is amazingly quick for a 265-pound man. Briggs and LaBoy likely will compete for the fourth outside linebacker position. The 49ers would like either McKillop or Bowman to step forward and bump veteran Wilhelm from the top backup spot at inside linebacker.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Nate Clements, RCB Shawntae Spencer, SS Michael Lewis, FS Dashon Goldson.
Backups -- CB Reggie Smith, S Taylor Mays, S Curtis Taylor, S Chris Maragos, CB Karl Paymah, CB Tarell Brown, CB Will James, CB Phillip Adams, CB Patrick Stoudamire, CB Tramaine Brock, CB LeRoy Vann.
Clements is looking to rebound from a subpar 2009 season, one in which he was first benched and then fractured his shoulder blade. Clements worked out privately in Arizona this offseason and looks like he's in excellent shape. Clements is a very physical cornerback who isn't afraid to swoop in and support the run defense. However, his speed is questionable, and he can be beaten deep. Spencer is the most technique-sound cornerback on the team and is perhaps better than Clements. Spencer was coming off an ACL tear in 2009 and should be even better this season. Lewis is an excellent tackler inside the box, but he is not a very good coverage safety. Mays likely is the heir at that position, but Lewis will maintain it for now. Goldson, meanwhile, is a tall, rangy safety who likes to hit. The 49ers were pleased with the progress he made in 2009, his first as the starter. Goldson, however, is in his contract year and is asking for more than the 49ers feel he's earned. If he struggles or is injured, Smith will be given a chance to show his worth.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Joe Nedney, K Shane Andrus, P Andy Lee, LS Brian Jennings.
Nedney is 37, but his leg doesn't seem to be losing any distance. He's still a clutch kicker, so much so that the 49ers' philosophy relies on keeping the score close and kicking a game-winning field goal at game's end. Lee went to his second Pro Bowl in February. He has a strong leg and is an excellent holder, but he doesn't kick directionally, which is something elite punters are expected to do. Jennings remains one of the best and most reliable long snappers in the league.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Matt Hasselbeck.
Backups -- Charlie Whitehurst, J.P. Losman.
The Seahawks brought in Whitehurst to create some competition at quarterback, and Hasselbeck responded by having one of his best offseasons ever, clearly asserting himself as the No. 1 guy. Part of that has to do with Hasselbeck's familiarity with the West Coast offense, giving him a leg up on Whitehurst and Losman. There appears to be more of a competition between Whitehurst and Losman for the No. 2 spot, as Losman has looked solid and played with a lot of confidence so far -- something to keep an eye on during training camp. The Seahawks could pick up another arm to help them get through camp.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Julius Jones, FB Owen Schmitt.
Backups -- Justin Forsett, Leon Washington, Quinton Ganther, Louis Rankin, FB Ryan Powdrell.
The starting job will likely be a two-man race between Jones and Forsett. However, Washington could work into the conversation if he comes back healthy from a broken leg. Washington looked pretty good during drills in minicamp and says he will be ready once training camp begins. Seattle still appears to need a short-yardage back, so it will be interesting to see if they make a move. Ganther has been impressive so far, and has added versatility with the ability to play fullback. However, a recent DUI arrest could put him on the chopping block.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- John Carlson.
Backups -- Chris Baker, Anthony McCoy, Cameron Morrah, Jameson Konz.
The addition of Baker allows Carlson to get more involved in the passing game. McCoy could have an impact this season, showing soft hands and moving well in the middle of the field during offseason workouts. But Morrah also has flashed at times, showing why the Seahawks took a late-round flyer on him last season. Konz hasn't got many team reps at practice and is still learning his way in a new position.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch.
Backups -- Mike Williams, Golden Tate, Deon Butler, Ben Obomanu, Sean Morey, Ruvell Martin, Mike Hass, Isaiah Stanback, Marcus Maxwell, Kole Heckendorf.
Houshmandzadeh and Branch provide experience, but both are returning from offseason surgery, so there is some uncertainty how they will respond. Williams has the potential to be the down-the-field threat on the outside the Seahawks have been lacking. Seattle only kept five receivers last season, but they may keep six here this year because of the depth at this position.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Russell Okung, LG Ben Hamilton, C Chris Spencer, RG Max Unger, RT Sean Locklear.
Backups -- C/G Steve Vallos, G Mansfield Wrotto, G Mike Gibson, T Joe Toledo, G Mitch Erickson, C Adrian Martinez, C Jeff Byers, T Jacob Phillips.
Offensive line coach Alex Gibbs seems to have improved the overall depth of this group from a year ago. Hamilton provides Seattle with a teacher on the field familiar with Gibbs' zone blocking scheme. Okung has big shoes to fill with Pro Bowler Walter Jones recently retiring. Even though the rookie will have his struggles, he's a significant upgrade from what Seattle had at the position last season.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Red Bryant, RDE Chris Clemons, NT Colin Cole, DT Brandon Mebane.
Backups -- T Kevin Vickerson, E Lawrence Jackson, E E.J. Wilson, T Craig Terrill, E Nick Reed, E Ricky Foley, Dexter Davis, E Robert Henderson, E Rob Rose, Jonathan Lewis.
Seattle still needs an effective, edge rusher to help create consistent pressure on the quarterback. They will try to achieve that goal through scheme and bringing speedy guys off the edge like Clemons, Reed and Foley. Mebane and Cole played well against the run last season, but the team has high expectations for Mebane and expects more than the 1.5 sacks he generated in 2009. The competition to watch is for strong-side defensive end between Bryant and Jackson. Bryant, who moved from defensive tackle to defensive end, was one of the pleasant surprises of camp.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB David Hawthorne, MLB Lofa Tatupu, SLB, Aaron Curry.
Backups -- Leroy Hill, Will Herring, Anthony Heygood, Matt McCoy, Joe Pawelek.
This unit remains the strength of Seattle's defense, but underperformed in 2009. Hill needs to put his legal issues behind him in order to earn his starting job back. Seattle could move Curry to defensive end at times in order to get Hill and Hawthorne on the field at the same time. The strength of this group is versatility -- most of these backers can play all three positions.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Marcus Trufant, RCB Kelly Jennings, FS Earl Thomas, SS Lawyer Milloy.
Backups -- CB Josh Wilson, CB Walter Thurmond, CB Roy Lewis, CB Chris Richards, CB Kennard Cox, CB Marcus Brown, CB Marcus Udell, CB Josh Pinkard, CB Cord Parks, S Jordan Babineaux, S Kam Chancellor, S Kevin Ellison, S Jamar Adams, S James Brindley.
Jennings looked impressive during offseason workouts and has elevated to the first unit over Wilson. Jennings always has been a strong cover corner, but his ball skills have continued to improve. Thurmond (knee) looks on pace to be ready for training camp. Milloy and Babineaux should battle it out for the strong safety spot until the final cuts. The loser could be on a different roster at the start of the regular season, as Seattle looks to get younger on the back end of the defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Jon Ryan, K Olindo Mare, LS Matt Overton.
Ryan and Mare were the most consistent players for Seattle last season, so the team is not carrying any extra players on the roster at present to push them. New long-snapper Overton will have some pressure to look sharp during the preseason play.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- A.J. Feeley.
Backups -- Sam Bradford, Keith Null, Thaddeus Lewis.
Feeley is the starter entering camp, but how long will that last? That will obviously be the most prevalent question during the entire summer. Despite winning only one game last season, the Rams could see more than their fair share of national media during camp because of the presence of Bradford, the first overall choice in April's draft. Undoubtedly, Feeley knows the offense better than Bradford, which will make the opening-day decision for the coaches intriguing. Null should be able to hold off Lewis for the No. 3 job, although the latter does have some impressive athletic ability.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Steven Jackson, FB Mike Karney.
Backups -- Kenneth Darby, Chris Ogbonnaya, Keith Toston, FB Jamie McCoy.
It is assumed Jackson will be ready for camp after undergoing back surgery on April 15. However, treading lightly will likely be the plan as he becomes accustomed to contact again. Without a proven backup behind him, the Rams are once again faced with hoping he can last the entire season without suffering any setbacks. Darby entered camp as the No. 1 backup, but he will receive challenges from Ogbonnaya and Toston. Plus, there is always the chance someone else will be signed at some point in the summer. Darby's value is more as a third-down back. Ogbonnaya and Toston could emerge better than many expect. Ogbonnaya is also a good receiver, and only a lack of pure speed kept Toston from being drafted. Both will get plenty of opportunities in preseason games. Karney's season was somewhat disappointing in 2009, and injuries were a factor. He has to show he can stay healthy. McCoy showed some flashes during offseason work, and has the ability to be a receiver. However, he will have to show he can block to earn a job.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Daniel Fells.
Backups -- Billy Bajema, Michael Hoomanawanui, Darcy Johnson, Fendi Onobun, Eric Butler.
Place a large asterisk next to Fells' name. He wasn't able to practice during the offseason as he recovered from a 2009 knee injury, and while showing good things at times he wasn't consistent as a blocker or receiver. Now, the competition has been ramped up following the departure of Randy McMichael. Bajema and Johnson are likely competing for the job of blocking tight end. Bajema was with the team last season, while Johnson was previously with the New York Giants. Both have good size, while Johnson has better speed for the passing game. The wild cards will be the rookies, Hoomanawanui and Onobun. Hoomanawanui was used infrequently as a receiver in college at Illinois, but he showed good hands and the ability to get down the field during the offseason. He could end up being a bargain fifth-round pick, and an excellent West Coast offense tight end. Onobun, a sixth-round pick, has freakish athletic skills, but played only one season of college football. At 6-6, he could be a dangerous target in the red zone. To make the team, he will have to show he is capable of catching the ball in traffic and getting hit. The question will be whether the Rams want to take the chance of exposing him to waivers to get him on the practice squad. Butler was on the practice squad last season, and is unlikely to be around in September.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Donnie Avery, Laurent Robinson.
Backups -- Mardy Gilyard, Keenan Burton, Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola, Brooks Foster, Jordan Kent, Dominique Curry, Brandon McRae.
This position is where it appears the competition will be most significant, barring injury, of course. This is a key year for Avery to step up and show he can be consistent and injury-free. He believes a change in diet and an offseason regimen that added weight and strength will help. Robinson was on pace for 88 receptions when he was injured early in the third game last season, and could be the key to the receiving corps. He has to show he is fully recovered, and yes, stay healthy. Gilyard missed a significant portion of offseason work because of NFL rules, but his big-play ability should find a way into the offense. Gilyard could make Amendola expendable, with the only thing lacking in Amendola's game the ability to finish plays. If the Rams keep six receivers, the battle for the final spots will be strong. Burton also has to show he can stay healthy, as does Gibson, who was hampered in the offseason by a hamstring problem. Coaches raved about the offseason work from Foster, the fifth-round pick that missed the entire 2009 season. Kent is outstanding on special teams, but the question is whether he can show he's good enough as a receiver to win a job. Curry and McRae, both undrafted free agents, flashed in the offseason, and appear to be strong candidates for the practice squad.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jason Smith, LG Jacob Bell, C Jason Brown, RG Adam Goldberg, RT Phil Trautwein.
Backups -- T Rodger Saffold, G John Greco, C/G Hank Fraley, T Ryan McKee, T Eric Young, T Brandon Joyce, T Joe Gibbs, G Mark Lewis, C/G Drew Miller, G Mark Setterstrom, G Roger Allen III.
Like a broken record, health was the major question enveloping the offensive line as camp opened. Offseason work ended with six linemen on the sideline: Smith (toe), Bell (knee), Saffold (knee), Lewis (knee), Setterstrom (triceps) and Allen (knee). Allen's injury occurred in the final game of the 2009 season, but all the others occurred during offseason workouts. If healthy and together, the line looks good enough to enable the offense to compete. The main question is whether the rookie Saffold can overtake Trautwein and become a starter when the season begins. Smith is probably the biggest key. The second overall selection in the 2009 draft, he missed eight games because of a knee injury and concussion, and then suffered an injured toe in the offseason. Brown is the anchor in the middle, and Goldberg is best at guard. Competition for him could come from Greco. Fraley provides veteran leadership and depth at center and guard. Setterstrom is expected to be sidelined for the entire season after suffering a torn triceps near the end of offseason practices. The others will be battling for at most, one roster spot.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Chris Long, DT Fred Robbins, DT Clifton Ryan, RE James Hall.
Backups -- E Victor Adeyanju, E C.J. Ah You, E George Selvie, E Hall Davis, E Eugene Sims, T Darell Scott, T Chris Hovan, T Gary Gibson, T Jermelle Cudjo.
Coaches hope this is a breakout year for Long. His rookie season was spent adjusting from a 3-4 college defense to the 4-3, and he then had to learn another system last year. The light appeared to go on in the second half of the season, and it is expected he will pick up where he left off, and do it from the left side of the line. He was always solid against the run, and the pass-rush production came when he had all five of his sacks last season in the final nine games of the season. The versatile Hall returns with his leadership and ability to play end and tackle. Adeyanju was forgotten for the first half of the '09 season, but contributed down the stretch. Ah You is coming back from a knee injury. The unknowns are three drafted rookies, all selected after the fourth round: Davis, Sims and Selvie. All have pass-rush ability, but will have to show they can do it at the NFL level. Inside, Robbins and Hovan add experience and depth. Ryan is solid on the nose. Scott played well as a rookie late in the season, and he will be the player to watch as camp unfolds. Gibson is returning from a broken leg that ended his 2009 season. Cudjo is a longshot.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Bobby Carpenter, MLB James Laurinaitis, SLB Na'il Diggs.
Backups -- OLB Chris Chamberlain, David Vobora, OLB Larry Grant, MLB Josh Hull, OLB Dominic Douglas, Cardia Jackson.
A weakness at the outside spots is believed to have been addressed with the offseason additions of Carpenter and Diggs. Carpenter, a former first-round pick, was never a fit in the Cowboys' 3-4 defense. The Rams believe he will be fine on the weak side, while being able to defend tight ends and running backs in the passing game. Diggs has a lot of NFL miles on him, but he is solid against the run. Laurinaitis was a revelation last year as a rookie, not only playing well, but also calling the defenses. He should be even better in his second year. The domino effect of adding Carpenter and Diggs also helped the depth. Vobora, who started on the strong side last season, can also back up in the middle. Chamberlain is excellent on special teams. The rookie Hull is also in the mix for special teams and as a backup middle linebacker. Grant must continue to show improvement, and appears safe if the Rams keep seven linebackers. Douglas and Jackson are extreme longshots.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Justin King, RCB Ron Bartell, SS James Butler, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe.
Backups -- CB Bradley Fletcher, CB Kevin Dockery, CB Quincy Butler, CB Jerome Murphy, CB Marquis Johnson, CB Antoine Thompson, S Craig Dahl, S Kevin Payne, S David Roach, S Darian Stewart, S Martin Harris.
The Rams hope Fletcher will be the starter and not King, but there's still no way of knowing when Fletcher will be full-go. He was able to do individual work during the offseason, but no team drills coming back from a knee injury that ended his promising rookie season. Bartell is confident he will be the player he is capable of being after a quadriceps injury severely limited him last season. If Fletcher isn't ready, King is certainly no sure thing. He will have to hold off Quincy Butler, and possibly rookie Jerome Murphy. The undersized and feisty Dockery will compete as the nickel back, and the rookie Johnson will look to be noticed. The re-signing of Atogwe was important not only because of his big-play ability, but it made Dahl and Payne depth players. With James Butler at strong safety, the depth is as good as it's been in a while. If a fifth safety makes the roster, Roach has the early edge, but he could be challenged by undrafted free agents Stewart and Harris.
SPECIALISTS: K Josh Brown, P Donnie Jones, LS Chris Massey, KR Mardy Gilyard, KR Danny Amendola.
At least there is one part of the team with hardly any questions. Brown and Jones are two of the best at what they do in the NFL. Brown sometimes misses field-goal attempts he shouldn't, but there's no one better in the league from 50 yards and beyond. Massey should be fine coming back from a 2009 knee injury. The return game should be exciting. Amendola was very good last season, but didn't have the finishing power to turn long returns into touchdowns. Gilyard has that ability, which would be a plus for a team that has had two returns for touchdowns (one punt, one kickoff) in the last nine seasons after having seven from 1998-2000.
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