NFC West: Training Camp Objectives

Training camp begins in two weeks or less for all NFL teams. While a great deal of attention will be focused on rookies and free agent acquisitions, overall objectives that must be met for teams to succeed are also established. We look at three such objectives for each NFC West squad.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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Camp Location: Eastern Washington University – Cheney, Washington
Rookies report: 7/26
Veterans report: 7/28

1. Make Marcus Tubbs a star: The Seahawks have succeeded in stocking their secondary with young talent. CB Marcus Trufant, CB Andre Dyson, SS Michael Boulware and FS Ken Hamlin should play together for years to come. But the front seven remains a weakness. The team tried to address the problem by using its 2004 first-round pick on 320-pound DT Marcus Tubbs. The choice made no difference last season, however, as Tubbs battled through emotional and physical injuries. His mother died of cancer just as Tubbs was trying to rehabilitate an ankle injury. The ankle has recovered and Tubbs says his mind is clearer than it has been since his mother became ill four years ago. In other words, now is the time for Tubbs to reach his first-round potential. He appeared trimmer and quicker during spring minicamps, but the momentum must carry over into training camp and the regular season if Seattle hopes to reach its potential on defense. Coaches have turned up the pressure in an effort to keep Tubbs headed in the right direction.

2. Fill the void at MLB: The selection of USC LB Lofa Tatupu marked the first time since 1998 that Seattle used higher than a fourth-round pick to draft a linebacker. Most analysts thought Tatupu, a second-round pick known for his instinctive play, would have been there in the third or fourth round. The Seahawks obviously disagreed. They think Tatupu has a chance to emerge as the emotional leader on a young and more energetic defense. Seattle needs to be right on this one because there isn't much experience at the position. Tatupu and second-year MLB Niko Koutouvides will play extensively in exhibition games as Seattle tries to shore up its run defense with an impact player in the middle. Seattle hasn't had a steady MLB since coach Mike Holmgren arrived in 1999. That has to change if the team is serious about improving on defense. If Tatupu and Koutouvides aren't ready, the team might have move Jamie Sharper or D.D. Lewis into the middle.

3. Figure out the RB situation: Logic says that RB Shaun Alexander will report in time to cash regular-season paychecks worth $370,000 a game. Franchise players often talk a big game in the offseason -- Alexander's comments have been pretty tame -- but they rarely miss out on the paychecks. Seattle must be prepared for Alexander to miss training camp and possibly the first few games. The offense figures to have a different look in the exhibition season as RB Maurice Morris and RB Kerry Carter share the load in Alexander's absence. Because Morris is about 20 pounds lighter than Alexander, he won't be asked to carry the ball 20 or 25 times a game. Carter has the size to carry the ball that frequently, but he lacks experience. That's why the Seahawks probably need to become more of a passing team. Coaches should have an easier time making the adjustment now that Pro Bowl LT Walter Jones will be in camp for the first time since 2001. Jones' presence should allow QB Matt Hasselbeck to improve upon recent exhibition performances.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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Camp Location: Northern Arizona University – Flagstaff, Arizona
Rookies report: 7/31
Veterans report: 7/31

1. Settle the starting running back position: The Cardinals have had only three 1,000-yard rushers in the past 20 years and none since 1998, their last playoff appearance. Emmitt Smith nearly got there last year at age 35 (935 yards) before he retired.

Now the fate of the rushing game rests with a veteran who is coming off a serious lower leg and ankle injury that caused him to miss all of last season, and a rookie.

Marcel Shipp, a big-body smasher between the tackles who can get around the corner but does not have blazing breakaway speed, attempts to come back from surgery on a fractured lower leg and dislocated ankle suffered during 2004 training camp. He'd been the Cardinals rushing leader in 2003 and 2002.

How effectively he can return is a question that needs to be answered early.

And whether he can hold off J.J. Arrington, a rookie back from California is another. Arrington was a high second-round pick after he was the only player in major-college football to rush for more than 2,000 yards last season. He's a smallish slasher.

At the very least, the Cardinals may have an effective tag-team at the position that offers a diverse contrast in styles.

2. Get the offense moving: The unit overall was disappointing and Coach Dennis Green made several moves, including bringing in a new quarterback, Kurt Warner, and two potential new starters in the line, veteran tackle Oliver Ross and rookie guard Elton Brown.

Green named Warner the starter following voluntary off-season work, a surprise after Josh McCown started 13 games (team was 6-7 in a 6-10 season) and the Cardinals said initially that Warner and McCown would compete for the job in camp.

But Green wanted to put Warner back into a comfort zone after Warner rode a bubble a year ago with the New York Giants, never really knowing how solid his footing was with highly touted rookie Eli Manning on the roster. Warner found out just after the midpoint when he was benched.

McCown is young and athletic and appears to have a future in the league but despite the team being more or less level during McCown's starts, he never impressed Green that he was a "gamer."

Warner now is healthy, has a rebuilt line that should give him adequate protection, and a fleet of three high-end young receivers in Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson.

If the tag team of Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington can create the threat of the run, the team should score more than the two touchdowns it averaged last season. Green would like to double that.

3. Settle the free safety position: The defense has been upgraded from front to back, and the improvement up front should ease the tension in the back. It has been a troublesome spot since the team let Kwamie Lassiter walk away as a free agent.

Dexter Jackson was signed as a free agent two years ago, just after he was MVP in Tampa Bay's Super Bowl win over Oakland. But Jackson never made the anticipated impact, largely because a nagging back injury hurt his performance most of his time in the desert. Early last season, he went on injured reserve, after never quite hitting it off with Dennis Green and staff.

Green initially handed the job to Quentin Harris, but his early-camp performance was so scary they quickly signed veteran Ifeanyi Ohalete, who is not the latest creation at Starbucks but a veteran free safety who is a high-average player. He started.

Harris now is a year older and ready to challenge to get the job back. Ohalete still is on the scene to compete, as is Green-crony acquisition Robert Griffith. That three-way tussle is expected to be the battle of this camp.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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Camp Location: Rams Park, St, Louis, Missouri
Rookies report: 7/28
Veterans report: 7/28

1. Establish stability at right tackle and left guard:
Last season, both of those positions were like a turnstile after right tackle Kyle Turley and center Dave Wohlabaugh were lost for the season. Andy McCollum moved from left guard to center, and the roller coaster's engine started.

There were four different starters at left guard and three at right tackle. With that in mind, the Rams selected Alex Barron in the first round of the draft and signed Rex Tucker as a free agent. Both were immediately installed as starters, but Barron was second team by the time the June minicamp rolled around.

Barron could still be the right tackle, but he will have to show in camp that he knows the offense and can play without thinking. If he isn't ready, the starter will be either Blaine Saipaia, who was there for the final seven games of the season, including playoffs; Scott Tercero, who spent the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery; or Grant Williams, who is better on the left side than the right.

The only question about Tucker is his health after three injury-filled seasons with the Bears. If he can avoid injury, the Rams have a steal at the position.

2. Figure out the starting safeties and nickel back:
Adam Archuleta will be one starter, assuming he has recovered from a back injury that seriously affected his play last season. But the other safety is a mystery. It could be Michael Stone or Michael Hawthorne, who were both signed as free agents in the offseason. Then there's Mike Furrey, a special teams standout who is making the move from wide receiver to safety. How he tackles will determine whether this switch works.

Also in the mix will be rookies Oshiomogho Atogwe and Jerome Carter. Whoever doesn't start could end up being the nickel back, a job that will also see competition from cornerbacks DeJuan Groce, Kevin Garrett, Dwight Anderson, Terry Fair, Corey Ivy and rookie Ronald Bartell.

New secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer has as much competition within his unit as any assistant coach on the team.

3. Improve the special teams and find a punter: This is all intertwined, and new special teams coach Bob Ligashesky believes he can accomplish what some believe is impossible. The Rams ranked at or near the bottom in virtually all special teams categories last season, and Ligashesky is now the fourth special teams coach in Mike Martz's six years as head coach.

However, the Rams for the first time signed free agents and drafted players with special teams in mind, and Ligashesky hopes to be able to identify his units early and work with them throughout the summer.

What's most surprising is that rookie Reggie Hodges, a sixth-round pick, is currently the only punter on the roster. Kevin Stemke, who replaced Sean Landeta during the 2004 season, was released after Hodges was drafted, so the pressure is on Hodges to justify the faith Ligashesky is showing him.

If he doesn't, the Rams will be watching the waiver wire very closely as August turns to September.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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Camp Location: San Francisco 49ers Complex – Santa Clara, California
Rookies report: 7/29
Veterans report: 7/29

1. See the No. 1 pick grow: The 49ers would love Alex Smith to immediately prove that he's the best quarterback on the roster. He is going to have to beat out incumbent Tim Rattay and improving Ken Dorsey for the job.

Smith is still unsigned, but all indications point to his arriving at training camp on time to begin competing for a job. He participated in all of the minicamps and had perfect attendance at the club's organized team activities.

With Smith under center, the 49ers would add a lot more flexibility with their offense. Smith has the ability to be a threat as a passer and a runner. He is the most athletic quarterback on the team's roster. He is also a quick learner, but it is uncertain if he'll be able to pick up Mike McCarthy's offense quick enough to start from Day 1.

Even if Smith does not start the regular-season opener Sept. 11 against the Rams, he should be able to put himself in position to gain the starting job midway through the season if the starter should falter or is injured.

2. Find pieces to fit in the secondary:
The 49ers did not have much depth at cornerback to begin with, but the coaching staff decided it was time to switch Mike Rumph to free safety. Rumph has been up and down as a cornerback in his three-year career, and he started just two games last season due to injuries. If Rumph adapts as well as the 49ers believe, he should team with strong safety Tony Parrish to give the team a solid last line of defense. But the team's situation at cornerback is a little tenuous.

The 49ers attempted to do something about their lack of depth with the acquisition of cornerback Willie Middlebrooks from the Broncos. Coach Mike Nolan said Middlebrooks should earn one of the team's top three spots, as he will have the opportunity to compete against Ahmed Plummer and Shawntae Spencer for a starting job.

If Middlebrooks is unable to win a starting job, he will be in competition against Rayshun Reed and rookies Derrick Johnson and Daven Holly for the role as the team's No. 3 corner.

3. Develop a play-maker:
The 49ers overhauled their offensive line, and now they need to find some explosive skill players.

Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd are penciled in as the starting receivers, and veteran Johnnie Morton gives the unit its only proven NFL performer. Battle has the potential to develop into a top-flight receiver but he has caught only eight passes in his first two seasons in the league.

Lloyd is adept at making the highlight-reel kind of catch. He led the 49ers with six touchdown receptions a year ago but he has a difficult time getting open against physical corners.

Running back Kevan Barlow struggled last season, as he was clearly frustrated with the lack of holes opened by the offensive line. He averaged just 3.4 yards a carry. The addition of third-round draft pick Frank Gore should light a fire under Barlow, who showed his immense talent in 2003 with a 1,000-yard rushing performance while starting just four games.


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