NFC West News & Notes - 5/6/06

As minicamps begin, and the rookies become acclimated, teams around the NFL begin to get back into the rhythm of the season. The Seahawks and Rams are training new first-round cornerbacks, the Cardinals welcome their marquee quarterback and the national attention he brings, and the 49ers trade for a name familiar to Seahawks fans.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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Free safety Ken Hamlin was back on the field for the first time since October when the Seahawks opened their post-draft mini-camp Friday. His return from life-threatening head injuries was seen as a good sign for a team with some question marks in the secondary.

"He's fine, he moved very well," coach Mike Holmgren said after Hamlin's first practice. "I talked to him. He said he felt great."

Hamlin was not made available to reporters, though he did speak publicly a few months after suffering the head injuries during an October fight outside a Seattle nightclub. He spent the last few months working on his strength and stamina.

"Now we'll monitor and see how it feels after each practice, but he got the OK from the doctors, and he has seen a number of doctors," Holmgren said. "I think it's full-speed ahead. I've got my fingers crossed but I think it's good, it's all good."

Hamlin did not wear the red jersey reserved for players who are off-limits to contact. The team will not put on full pads until training camp, but so far Hamlin appears well on his way to recovery. His health is important for a Seattle secondary in transition.

The Seahawks acquired veteran safety Mike Green from Chicago as insurance for Hamlin after free agency Marquand Manuel signed with Green Bay in free agency. The team is also breaking in a new left cornerback after releasing Andre Dyson to avoid paying a $3 million roster bonus.

A healthy Hamlin would go a long way toward stabilizing the secondary. He is one of the few safeties on the team with the range to cover. Strong safety Michael Boulware is coming off knee surgery and is not yet practicing.

"I think adding Mike Green really helps," Holmgren said. "It would be nice to have Michael Boulware able to practice, but we know what he can do. I'm hopeful Ken comes back and he's fine.

"If all those things happen, then we have pretty good depth at the safety position. But those things have to happen. Now, there is no reason to think they shouldn't. I'm hopeful."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Newly acquired WR Nate Burleson showed up for mini-camp wearing the No. 81 jersey worn previously by WR Peter Warrick. Warrick agreed to wear No. 83 after reaching agreement on an undisclosed settlement shortly before the first mini-camp.

"Me and Peter Warrick, we just had an understanding and worked things out," Burleson said with a sly grin. "Nothing big. He definitely was willing to give up the number, so I'm excited for that."

Burleson actually wanted to wear No. 13, which he wore at O'Dea High School in Seattle, but his family voted for the No. 81 he wore with the Vikings. "I've created an identity with 81," Burleson said, "so hopefully I can continue that here."

--Second-round DE Darryl Tapp knows only one speed: full. Seasoned veterans tend to take things a little more slowly during mini-camps. That made for some interesting matchups when Tapp matched up against six-time Pro Bowl LT Walter Jones during the post-draft mini-camp. Tapp actually beat Jones on a couple of plays. Another time, Jones eased off noticeably when he could have driven Tapp into the ground.

"He's a great guy, he's got a lot of energy," Jones said of the rookie. "It's what it is, man. He came in and he had a couple plays and you look forward to many more practices with him."

--RB Shaun Alexander was honored to appear on the front of the latest John Madden video game. The reigning league MVP also said he isn't worried about any curses that might have led previous Madden cover boys to suffer down seasons the following year.

"No, I don't believe in curses," Alexander said. "Once people start believing in curses then you have to remember what sock you put on, how many times you stepped on a (sidewalk) crack, make sure it's an even number. After that, did you pass a black cat? Did you walk up under a ladder? After that you get wore out."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We are always going to pay attention to that character deal. It won't be, 'We got lucky here, he's a good guy.' That will always be a big part of the equation, and it was this time, no matter who was on the list. We're real fortunate, and we're real excited about the guy." -- President Tim Ruskell on first-round draft choice Kelly Jennings

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The cornerback situation is one worth monitoring as training camp approaches. The Seahawks so far appear unwilling to shell out top dollar for veteran CB Ty Law, which means first-round pick Kelly Jennings could find his way into the starting lineup right away.

Seattle does have some options at the position. Veteran CB Kelly Herndon is working with the starters while Jennings gets his feet wet with the second unit. Versatile DB Jordan

Babineaux also could figure into the mix. He's a candidate to start at cornerback or safety, depending on where the need might be greatest. Ideally, Babineaux might provide insurance at those positions. His knack for making plays will keep him in the mix for a starting spot, however.

MEDICAL WATCH: The Seahawks are without numerous injured players during post-draft mini-camps. Most or all should return for training camp, if not sooner. The list of sidelined players includes DE Grant Wistrom (shoulder), DT Marcus Tubbs (calf), DE Jeb Huckeba (feet), DB Jordan Babineaux (shoulder), WR Darrell Jackson (knee), WR Jerheme Urban (foot), DE Joe Tafoya (shoulder), TE Jerramy Stevens (knee), WR Alex Bannister (clavicle) and SS Michael Boulware (knee).


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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All the glitz and glamour that has accompanied Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart's falling to the Cardinals at No. 10 in the draft, coupled with the free-agent signing in March of running back Edgerrin James has placed the team in unfamiliar territory: in the proverbial fish bowl. Suddenly there is a buzz of excitement about the only franchise in the NFL with seven straight losing seasons. Only once in 18 years since moving to Arizona have the Cardinals had a winning record (9-7 in 1998) and gone to the playoffs.

Suddenly, people seem to care. Season ticket sales took a giant spike after the signing of James, and the marketing staff finished the job this week after Leinart was drafted in what appears to be another strong incoming class of Cardinals. Season tickets at the new stadium in Glendale, Ariz., sold out by Thursday afternoon. There should be a real home-field advantage for the Big Red in the retractable-roof, retractable-grass field that James has dubbed "The Convertible."

And those who can't get in can watch at home. There hasn't been a home-game TV blackout lifted in five years.

Leinart, a Hollywood pretty boy who runs with the "A" crowd, bristled at the notion that he is paparazzi bait, though he did just sign an endorsement deal with Nike and he did have his pro "send-off" party at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, attended by the likes of Paris Hilton. Afterward, Leinart said it was a send-off party because he is more than eager to leave the Hollywood lifestyle behind, come to Arizona, wear shorts and flip-flops and just be Matt, the backup quarterback.

"This party was a culmination of a few chapters in my life. From now on, it's all NFL. It's strictly business," he told reporters who attended.

The team had about 4,500 season tickets left going into draft weekend. Once Leinart, guard Deuce Lutui, tight end Leonard Pope and defensive tackle Gabe Watson became the Cards' first four picks, action at the box office was brisk.

"The goal all along was to build a large season-ticket base and fill our stadium with Cardinals fans, starting with our inaugural season," said Ron Minegar, the team's vice president of marketing and sales. "We're ecstatic not only that we've been able to accomplish that, but particularly that it has happened so quickly." The team did hold back about five percent of available seats, roughly 3,000 tickets, to be sold game-by-game, but those are expected to be grabbed quickly once they are made available in June, assuring a sold-out home season.

To make it easier to lift the blackout, the team decided a couple of years ago to configure the new facility for its home games at around 63,000 seats. The stadium was designed for about 75,000 capacity. Additional seating will be added for the Super Bowl in 2008, the Fiesta Bowl and the BCS national championship game.

There has been no talk yet of keeping the additional seating in place for Cardinals games, but if demand remains high, it is possible down the line. The team is taking $200 non-refundable deposits on a season-ticket waiting list.

The Cardinals sold about 55,000 season tickets during their first year in Arizona, 1988. That figure has eroded steadily, along with their record. It was not unusual for fewer than 30,000 to be on hand at home games with blazing sunlight reflecting off the aluminum bleachers at Sun Devil Stadium, many of those fans wearing the colors of the opponent. Game-day atmosphere was akin to an intrasquad scrimmage.

There is no doubt that many season tickets were sold to people who want to be positioned for the 2008 Super Bowl lottery. The game is at Cardinals Stadium. But it does appear that the atmosphere around the Cardinals has changed.

NOTES, QUOTES

--With the work done on the field, the Cardinals now turn to their front office, where the contract of Rod Graves, vice president of operations, expires at the end of May.
It is believed that, given the quality of players added the past three seasons and the excitement about the team reflected in the quick sellout of season tickets for the new stadium, Graves is safe and in line for a lucrative new contract. But in the world of the Cardinals, even one that appears to be changing direction toward the NFL mainstream, nothing is certain.

The team did release Rodd Newhouse, who has worked in the pro personnel department for seven years. The contracts of most of the scouts also are due to lapse June 1.

--QB John Navarre, who at one point late in his rookie season had a chance to claim the starting job and lost it because he suffered a broken finger, now appears destined to be the No. 3 quarterback behind Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart. "Hey, I have to compete," Navarre said. "Competition brings out the best. I have to expect that."

--Similarly, RB Marcel Shipp, the team's rushing leader three of the past four years, now yields to Edgerrin James and will attempt to hold off J.J. Arrington, in whom the team has invested heavily, to be the backup. There have even been rumors that other teams are trying to trade for Shipp, but Arrington's poor rookie season should give Shipp job security. "I'll take it as it's dealt to me," Shipp said. "I try to make the best out of every situation that I'm in. That's what I've always done."

--A sign of the times: RB Edgerrin James had his laptop computer configured to work on the team training facility wireless Internet service. James also is having a television installed in his locker. James is mindful of the feelings of established players on the roster, especially QB Kurt Warner, in his choice of rap music in his locker music. "You've got to respect Kurt, he's an elder," James said. "We've got to make sure that he's cool with everything. I don't want to step on toes too early." James has influenced club officials to change the uniform a bit, from white shoes to black. "This is my personality," James said. "I don't like losing. I don't like sitting around a boring place. I like a live environment where it's fun. Usually, if there's happiness at the workplace, you're having success."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Adding a guy like Edge is instant credibility. It excites us from a passing standpoint and it has got to excite the offensive linemen from a running standpoint, just to have a guy that you know has done it and knows how to do it. It automatically makes us all more accountable for what we do, because you don't want to let a guy down." -- QB Kurt Warner, on the acquisition of RB Edgerrin James

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Cardinals may have helped solve their woes at weak-side linebacker with the signing of free agent Mark Brown to a one-year contract. Brown started 11 games for the New York Jets last season. The team was not happy with Orlando Huff last season after he signed as a free agent from Seattle. The Cardinals have moved Darryl Blackstone from the strong side to the weak side this spring. He had a rough rookie year behind Karlos Dansby on the strong side.

The best weak-side linebacker on the roster is veteran James Darling, but he had to play in the middle last season because the projected starter, Gerald Hayes, suffered a preseason knee injury and missed the entire season. Darling still is listed at MLB until Hayes is cleared for training camp. And with the signing of Brown, Darling might now stay in the middle.

Brown had a career high 65 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble last season. The Jets signed him as an undrafted rookie from Auburn in 2003. Brown's signing at the very least bolsters depth. Only five linebackers were at Tuesday's voluntary practice.

"We've got to get some more guys," coach Dennis Green said afterward.

--OLB Karlos Dansby (hamstring) is taking it easy during mini-camp.
--MLB Gerald Hayes (knee), the projected starter, isn't practicing after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
--The Cardinals also are thin at tackle and may have interest in veteran Ross Verba, who sat out last season after buying out his contract in Cleveland.
--CB Antrel Rolle (knee), C Alex Stepanovich (shoulder), FB James Hodgins (knee), and G Reggie Wells (ankle) did not practice. They are all coming off surgery. Rolle's situation is most disturbing. He is still experiencing pain and may need arthroscopic surgery on his knee. He missed most of his rookie season, nine games, to meniscus surgery on the knee.
--P Fred Capshaw, a free agent who last played with San Francisco in 2004, signed a one-year contract. The Cardinals are very happy with P Scott Player, so Capshaw appears to be nothing more than an extra leg for training camp.
--The Cardinals signed 10 rookie free agents. Micheal Spurlock, a quarterback from Mississippi, will switch to receiver. A.J. Schable, a defensive end from South Dakota, will switch to fullback. Among the group are three cornerbacks and a safety, positions of need that were not addressed in free agency and the draft: S Chris Harrell, Penn State; CB Darrell Hunter, Miami (Ohio); CB Justin Wyatt, Southern California; and CB Jay McCareins, Princeton. The other four rookie free agents are WR Greg Lee, Pittsburgh; WR Damarius Bilbo, Georgia Tech; MLB Lawrence Pinson, Oklahoma State, and TE Alex Shor, Syracuse.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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If there is one thing Tye Hill doesn't lack, it's confidence. The Rams' first-round pick measures just under 5-10, but he says that's not a problem. "Where there's a will, there's a way," Hill said. "I've been playing against big receivers all my life. I don't see that as a big problem for me." Said Rams coach Scott Linehan, "You watch him against some of the bigger receivers he played against in college... I think the best seller for me was when he played against the kid from Georgia Tech (6-4 Calvin Johnson), probably the best receiver in college football potentially, and he had an outstanding game. I'm not sure how big he is, 6-4 or 6-5, he (Hill) just went up and locked him up."

Hill said he did well against big receivers at the Senior Bowl and also added that he has more problems with quicker, smaller receivers than big guys.

Said Rams safety Corey Chavous, "I think he'll be a pretty good player from Day 1. He's one of those guys who has been in a lot of man-to-man situations before. He showed in the Senior Bowl he can match up against bigger guys." In addition, Hill has only been playing cornerback for three seasons after originally being a running back at Clemson.

"I have a whole lot of upside because I've only been playing the position for three years," Hill said. "I think I made tremendous strides in the course of these past three years."
As for the rap that Hill doesn't have great hands, Linehan said, "(Secondary coach) Willy (Robinson) and (assistant secondary coach) Ronnie (Milus) and some of the coaches that work with us down in drills and we worked him out, obviously, (since) he was one of the top players on our board. And we came away with (the feeling) that (his catching) was something he could definitely get better at. I think there is a reason a lot of defensive guys end up on defense, because they don't possess the hands that an offensive player has. I probably shouldn't say that, but it is probably true.

"But I think the guy really has talent in that area. It is something that you have to work on, but if you can't start with being able to cover guys first, then it doesn't matter how good you can catch the ball. And that is one thing he has no problem doing."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Rams veteran players believe the selection of defensive tackle Claude Wroten in the third round was a good one and worth the risk. Wroten was arrested for possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute in January, but the charges were later dismissed. He then failed a drug test at the scouting combine. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, a second-round pick in 2003, said, "I was small, and I had a bad rep. We have a good team. Everyone knows that the Rams are known for their character. Just get him in here, and we'll do the rest. We'll make sure he doesn't get into trouble.

"A lot of guys get in trouble, (but) I think my size killed me the most. Once I got in front of the general managers, once I got in front of the coaches, they realized, 'This guy is not like what he did.' Plus, I was in high school. They were telling me their high school stories when I was meeting with them. They don't want me to repeat those stories."
Added defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, "Obviously, off the field, he has to be a grown man. This is a grown-man business. Nobody is going to baby-sit or hold your hand off the field.

"He's a tremendous player. He's in the mold of the smaller, quicker defensive tackles. He had a lot of value in the third round. Some people said he was maybe a Top 15 guy. Hopefully, he can come in and pick up the system, have a good attitude and work ethic."

--CB DeJuan Groce recently signed his one-year tender as a restricted free agent, but he knows that doesn't guarantee anything, especially after the team signed Fakhir Brown in the off-season and then drafted CB Tye Hill in the first round. "There's competition every year," Groce said. "Last year, they brought Ron Bartell in. It's always like that. You're always fighting to get the starting position. That's good. It gets us better every year."

--All 10 of the Rams' draft picks came from five Division I-A conferences: SEC, Pac-10, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC. In the five years that Mike Martz was coach, 20 of 53 drafted players came from those five conferences plus Notre Dame. In those six drafts, the Rams didn't take even one player from the SEC. Their last SEC player was defensive end Leonard Little in 1998.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've been following the draft a lot longer than a lot of guys in the league. You can't forget that I'm second generation. My uncle played in the league. It's always something that has been a hobby of mine." -- Rams safety Corey Chavous, on how he became so interested in the draft. His uncle, Barney Chavous, played 13 seasons with the Broncos.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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After more than a year of trying, the 49ers finally found a veteran backup quarterback to help guide Alex Smith, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft. The 49ers acquired veteran backup quarterback Trent Dilfer from the Browns in exchange for quarterback Ken Dorsey and a seventh-round draft pick in 2007. Dilfer, 34, gives the 49ers an experienced player who has a history of working well with younger quarterbacks.

"Trent was a player we had interest in last season," Nolan said. "We were looking for a veteran quarterback with experience that could help mentor Alex Smith. Trent fits the bill on both counts and we are excited to have him with the 49ers." The 49ers assume the remainder of Dilfer's contract, with scheduled annual salaries of $1 million for each of the next three seasons. He becomes the team's backup quarterback, behind Smith and ahead of Jesse Palmer and Cody Pickett.

Dilfer underwent surgery in February to repair a partially torn patellar tendon in his right knee. He is not expected to be cleared for practice until at least June. He reported to his new team for its first full-squad mini-camp.

A 12-year veteran from Fresno State, Dilfer was drafted sixth overall by the Buccaneers in 1994. He spent six seasons with Tampa Bay before winning a Super Bowl in 2000, his only season with the Ravens. He spent four seasons with the Seahawks before getting traded to the Browns. The 49ers consider Dilfer a player who has a future in coaching. He is expected to have a positive influence on Smith's career. Smith was the first player chosen in last year's draft and started seven games as a rookie. He struggled, with 11 interceptions and just one touchdown pass for the year.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Receiver Antonio Bryant was rooting for the 49ers to select tight end Vernon Davis with the No. 6 overall pick. But tight end Eric Johnson, who caught 82 passes in '04, obviously was not. "I've been lucky not to have a first-round guy or a top-10 pick at my position," Johnson said. "Of course, I wasn't cheering them on for it, but it's a new challenge and he's going to be a good addition to the team. It's not like being at a position like quarterback where there's just one guy. We can both be at a position like tight end and mix and match. I'm excited to play with him. We can have the best tight end duo in the league."

Bryant sees the addition of Davis as a huge boost to the receiving corps because he is likely to draw defensive backs away from the wide receivers. "That's what I was hoping for," Bryant said. "I don't get inside the politics of it all, but that was what I was hoping for."

--Eric Heitmann is working exclusively at center during the off-season, as the club still does not know if veteran center Jeremy Newberry will be able to play this season. Heitmann has a locker next to free-agent pickup Larry Allen, considered a likely Hall of Famer based on his 12 seasons with the Cowboys. "When you're a young kids growing up and playing football, especially for me in Texas, Larry Allen was your prototypical star NFL lineman," Heitmann said. "He's the guy every high school lineman would look up to for technique or inspiration. I've been a fan of Larry's since I was in high school."

--Onye Ibekwe played power forward at Long Beach State, which does not have a football program. He is among the latest crop of basketball players hoping to make the transition to the NFL as tight ends. He agreed to a two-year contract with the 49ers as an undrafted rookie. "It's a good situation, a good location and a good tradition," Ibekwe said. "I wanted to go where I was wanted the most, and the 49ers expressed the most interest in me. It's a good place for me to grow."

Ibekwe is one of at least three athletes who played college basketball and have no football experience past high school to sign as NFL free agents this week. Jai Lewis, who led George Mason to the Final Four, signed with the Giants, while Connecticut's Ed Nelson joins the Rams.

--Ibekwe's brother, Ekene, is a standout basketball player at Maryland who recently declared for the NBA draft. Ekene is good friends with tight end Vernon Davis, whom the 49ers chose Saturday with the No. 6 overall pick. "He came into Maryland with Vernon Davis, so that figured into my decision, too," said Ibekwe, adding six or seven teams wanted to sign him. "I don't know Vernon personally, but my brother told me a lot about him. I'm looking forward to meeting him and I'm willing to learn from him." Ibekwe was listed on the Long Beach basketball roster at 6-foot-8. NFL scouts recently measured him at 6-5, 256 pounds during a workout in which 15 to 20 organizations sent representatives.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The first thing we wanted to do -- on the first day, in particular -- was to get starters, to get people that were playmakers. From there, we wanted to make sure we got guys with speed. Toughness was big for us. Football smarts. All these things were things that we're shooting for every day, but in particular that first day because I think you get starters by getting those kind of guys" -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan on the club's approach to the draft

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Mike Rumph, the 49ers' first pick in the 2002 draft, is moving back to cornerback, the position at which he entered the league. Last year, the new 49ers coaching staff tried to convert him to free safety, but after two games, they discontinued the experiment and Rumph was moved back to cornerback. Rumph never got a chance to play corner in a game last season because he tore the plantar fascia of his right foot, ending his season.

Rumph enters this off-season as a second-string cornerback, behind free-agent acquisition Walt Harris. Rumph is getting his first chance to show coach Mike Nolan and secondary coach Johnnie Lynn what he has to offer as a cornerback.

"They haven't seen me," Rumph said. "It's an audition. I'm coming in like it's my first day and I'm starting all over again. They've never seen me at the position, so I don't have any credibility with these guys. I'm going at it as a rookie. I want to be here and I want to come in here and do what I can to help."


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