Around the NFC West
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers lost one of their top special teams performers as well as a potential heir to Takeo Spikes' starting job on Aug. 4 when linebacker Scott McKillop leaped into the air to defend a pass and came down awkwardly on his left leg. The diagnosis the following day: McKillop had torn the ACL and patellar tendon in his left knee. He had surgery to repair the damage two days later and is expected to miss the rest of the season.
McKillop, a fifth-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh in 2009, led the 49ers in special teams tackles a year ago and scored a touchdown when he recovered a fumbled punt in the end zone. More important, the 49ers have been looking for a potential replacement for Spikes, who turns 34 this year and is in the final year of his contract. Whoever steps in for Spikes has a critical role: He is expected to pair with three-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis for the next decade.
McKillop's injury automatically shifted the spotlight to rookie Navorro Bowman, a third-round draft pick out of Penn State. Bowman was an excellent tackler with the Nittany Lions, but he mostly played outside linebacker in a 4-3 system in which he didn't have to take on blocks and in which he could use his straight-line speed to his advantage. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, who runs a 3-4 defense, admitted that drafting inside linebackers these days was a bit of a leap of faith.
"It's hard to see a guy come downhill and strike somebody," Manusky said of college game film. "You can watch a lot of film on individuals and not see that from inside linebackers, even outside linebackers. So, it's a hard process, but as long as you can see that explosion and the movement skills that a guy has, and that's what he's got, which we're excited about."
Bowman also is smaller than the 255-pound inside linebackers that were commonplace when Manusky played in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bowman's new position calls for him to take on blocks from fullbacks and pulling guards. Bulk is a must. And while he played in the 230-pound range when he was at Penn State, he's already bulked up to 242 pounds with the 49ers.
Manusky and the 49ers have liked what they've seen from Bowman. He used his speed to knife through the line of scrimmage and nearly intercepted a swing pass to Frank Gore during a practice last week. The following day, he was unstoppable in a blitz-pickup drill. Running backs Michael Robinson, Glen Coffee and Anthony Dixon all struggled to stop Bowman, who has shown remarkable quickness in tight spaces.
"I'm getting better every day," Bowman said. "That's my goal, to come out here and not make the mistakes I made in the first part (of camp). It comes down to really knowing how to play the position and having the right technique. At this level, everyone is good and knows how to do their job, so you have to be able to do the right technique and be in the right position to get the ball."
After missing six days of training camp, the Seahawks finally got offensive tackle Russell Okung into the fold.
The last of all 2010 first-round picks to sign with their respective team, Okung inked a six-year, $48.5 million deal that could max out at $58 million, with $30 million guaranteed.
Okung refused to comment on the impasse in negotiations, saying he wanted to focus on the future. However, head coach Pete Carroll seemed to indicate the Seahawks held firm on their offer.
The amount of guaranteed money Okung received seems to confirm back Carroll's claim. The No. 6 overall pick in this year's draft, Okung's guaranteed number of $30 million splits the difference between No. 5 overall pick Eric Berry's $34 million guaranteed money from Kansas City and No. 7 overall pick Joe Haden's $26 million guaranteed money from Cleveland.
With his financial situation settled, here comes the hard part for Okung -- filling the big shoes left behind by future Hall of Famer Walter Jones, a nine-time Pro Bowler at left tackle who retired earlier this year.
However, Okung says his focus is not playing up to the high bar Jones set, but simply being the most productive player he can be.
"That's the thing about it, I love the fans of Seattle," Okung said. "They don't expect me to be Walter Jones. They expect me to be the best I can possibly be. And I'm going to be the best Russell Okung I can possibly be."
Seahawk fans might not expect Okung to play like Jones, but they certainly expect him to be a significant upgrade over what the team had at that position last season. Seattle went through five different left tackles in 2009 after Jones failed to return from microfracture knee surgery.
So solidifying the offensive line and providing better protection for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is the No. 1 priority to improve an offense that ranked No. 26 overall in total yards last year.
"Obviously, with what we did in the draft, they made (left tackle) a priority," Hasselbeck said. "From day one, the first day that everyone got here, that was just understood that was going to be a priority, and we're taking him, and then we don't have to worry about that anymore."
So far, Okung has looked like he can be that guy. Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons says that the Oklahoma State product has been a quick study in camp.
"Russell is a very strong individual," Clemons said. "His punch is strong and he's a smart player ... you can already see that he's learning things every day.
"The biggest thing for him is to adjust to the speed he'll see every Sunday coming from the quarterback's blind side. He has no choice but to be on his game every play, and to know what he's supposed to do every play, because he can get the quarterback hurt."
Now that he's in camp, Okung has had to listen to constant scolding from longtime offensive line coach Alex Gibbs.
"Oh, yeah, he had a lot of words for me," joked Okung, calling Gibbs one of the oldest but best offensive line coaches in the league. "But that's just him. And I'm going to take the coaching, and I'm going to get better every day."
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Early in the week, his first full week of training camp, not everything was rosy for quarterback Sam Bradford.
Said coach Steve Spagnuolo, after an Aug. 3 practice, "He's had some good throws and some bad ones. He threw one into the wind that kind of floated up there. I'm sure he wanted that one back. I do like the fact that when he makes a mistake, he's not very happy and he shows it. He's got some feistiness to him. I think that's good in a quarterback."
Bradford has been processing a lot of information in a short period of time. "We've put a lot in every day," he said. "And the more we put in, the more I have to think. ... Once we get everything in and I've repped everything, I think I'll feel more comfortable. I think it's just a matter of me really adjusting to the speed and all the different variations can that occur in a play.
"All the different blitz pickups ... obviously that just takes time and experience. That's something I need to work on. I don't want to get myself killed. But I think once I get in the film room, study a little bit more on our protections, how they work, how the blitzes work, what we can protect and what we need (to check out of), then I think that'll be very helpful for me."
Then came Friday (Aug. 6) when Bradford put on an impressive show. Coaches have had the offense working with a 35-second clock instead of 40 to get in and out of plays quickly.
Said Spagnuolo, "He had some nice throws there, didn't he? From the standpoint of scoring points, he did. I thought he did a nice job today. We put those quarterbacks, I don't know if you noticed it, on a speed-up, if that's a word. They're doing a really good job with it."
Quarterback A.J. Feeley told cnnsi.com, "Every day he sees the field more and more, and you can see it coming. He's starting to get it. You can just tell. Today he just had his best day of practice since he's been here."
The humble Bradford, who believes nothing should be handed to him, said, "That's just part of my personality, but I do feel that way because I haven't done anything in this league yet. I realize everything has to be earned. I don't want anything given to me. I don't want any reps given to me. I don't want to play because I'm the No. 1 pick. I want to play because the coaches and staff feel that I'm the guy who gives us the best chance to win. That's kind of my approach to everything."
As for his Friday practice, Bradford said, "Today was definitely one of my better practices. It's always nice when you have days like that, especially this early, when sometimes it's a grind and I feel like I'm struggling and things are tougher than what they were in college. So to come out there and have a day like that, it really does kind of give you some confidence. In your head, you're like, 'OK, I can do this.'"
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