NFC West News and Notes - 6/24/06

In today's News and Notes: Matt Hasselbeck recalls an off-field hit from the heavens, the Rams grill with an eye toward togetherness, the 49ers get an early start on signing their draft picks, and the Cardinals receive yet more props on their new stadium.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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The Seahawks endured a shaky start to free agency, only to rebound with two moves that made the team better. That start saw the team lose left guard Steve Hutchinson, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius and free safety Marquand Manuel in short order. The talent drain fed speculation that Seattle might become the next Super Bowl loser to fall off dramatically the next season.

That line of thinking would have been accurate had the team stood pat. But with more than $20 million in salary-cap space, the Seahawks moved aggressively in signing former Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson to a seven-year deal totaling more than $50 million. Peterson gives the defense the kind of dynamic performer Seattle hasn't had on that side of the ball. He is versatile enough to shut down tight ends in coverage or beat offensive linemen to the quarterback. Seattle has the luxury of pairing Peterson with Pro Bowl middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and emerging outside linebacker Leroy Hill, a combination that could vault the Seahawks into a top-10 defensive ranking.

Seattle followed the Peterson signing by adding wide receiver Nate Burleson as a restricted free agent from the Vikings. Burleson has the quickness Seattle covets in a receiver. He should boost the Seahawks' yards-after-catch, one of the main reasons Seattle signed him.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Carolina Hurricanes' recent Stanley Cup victory over Edmonton had to hit a little close to home for Matt Hasselbeck. The Seahawks' quarterback was struck by lightning years ago when attending the wedding reception for current Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette. Hasselbeck and Laviolette are both from Massachusetts. Hasselbeck was at the wedding because he knew Laviolette's wife when the two were kids. "All of a sudden it's lightning and thundering really bad, but we can't see it so we think we're fine," Hasselbeck told the Tacoma News Tribune in a 2001 interview. "All of a sudden, right behind me, whack. I mean, it sounds like it's in your ears. This lightning strike, it comes through my toes, through my knees and back out my toes in a nanosecond. You know how you burn your hand in a fire and say, ouch? I didn't have time to say ouch.

"And then I was like, that hurt so much. But after it happened, it didn't hurt. It hurt for that second that it was in me. Everyone in my table got struck. One guy at my table is out. The caterer starts screaming, 'Get the food, get the food.' The people at the other side of the L have no idea. No idea. Some people saw it. The bartender has like a Coors Light can in his hand and it went flying because he got struck.

"They made us take an EKG of our heart and they checked out the heart rate. ... We were fine."

--The Seahawks are a deep team, which makes it nearly impossible for NFL Europe players to earn roster spots. Seattle allocated 11 players to Europe this offseason. It's tough to see any of them sticking around for the long term, particularly after receiver Skyler Fulton and quarterback Gibran Hamdan suffered injuries. Seattle has allocated 78 players to NFL Europe since 1995. Only 11 of those players have played in a regular-season game for the Seahawks. Of those 11, only quarterback Jon Kitna and linebacker James Logan ever started games for the team (Logan made four starts, but he was mostly a backup and key special-teams contributor).

--First-round pick Kelly Jennings is making strides as he adapts to a new style following a long college career at Miami, where the Hurricanes played a great deal more man coverage. Jennings began working out full-time in Seattle in mid-May. "I've made a big step since then," Jennings said. "I'm still thinking and there are still a lot of things I'm trying to get together so I can just play, but I'm far along from where I was."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't loaf at all. When I see the owner out here, it's time to work for sure." - QB Matt Hasselbeck after Seahawks owner Paul Allen dropped by a recent practice.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Fourth-year cornerback Marcus Trufant is looking for bigger things this season. He's finally healthy after spending recent offseason rehabbing from shoulder injuries. The work he is getting in offseason camps should translate into better things during the regular season. Trufant, chosen 11th overall from Washington State in 2003, feels like this could be a breakthrough season. "I feel I have not really underachieved, but I haven't made it to the point where I want to be," he said. "This is the first time in a while where I'm able to work hard and get better."

Trufant has been forced to play catchup in recent seasons because of all the time he has missed at training camp. "It's different in college," Trufant said. "You can be hurt a little and still be pretty good. In this league everyone is so good, so fast, that you want to be at 100 percent. I do have a greater appreciation for health after two surgeries and playing hurt last year and the year before. This year I'm ready."


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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Top three off-season moves

1. The acquisition of free-agent running back Edgerrin James, one of the best players in the game, can only help the league's worst rushing attack. James has rushed for just more than 4,300 yards in three years, which is about the same as the Cardinals as a team during that span. James' signing also addresses a credibility issue for the Cardinals, in the locker room and in the public eye. It legitimizes a franchise that has been viewed as an NFL backwater for its years of malfeasance. If the Cardinals can rush the ball to complement one of the game's most potent passing attacks -- with quarterback Kurt Warner and receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson -- it should have no problem scoring.

"I never put a number on what I'm going to do on the football field," James said. "There are a lot of things that could affect that, but if I look at the potential and I see I have two receivers and I know what type of back I am, if we get the line on the same page were going to move the ball down the field. If the opposing team jumps out on you, you know your going to be playing catch up and then it's going to be a passing game. You're still not going to be able to run the ball. So you never can say how many yards you're going to get. I just go out and put myself in position to have a good year."

2. Going hand-in-hand with signing James is improvement of the offensive line with the signing of free agent guard Milford Brown and the drafting of guard Deuce Lutui from Southern California. Brown will step in immediately as the starter on the right side. He grew to be an effective blocker in Houston and appears ready to take center stage. Lutui, from Mesa, Ariz., was a popular draft selection with fans but he should prove to be popular with his teammates, as well. He helped two USC players become Heisman Trophy winners. In 2004, he was the Trojans' right tackle -- and blind-side protector of left-handed thrower Matt Leinart, who won the Heisman. Last season, he moved inside to left guard, where he helped make Reggie Bush the Heisman winner. Lutui is working at left guard, where he gives the team flexibility to further change the makeup of the line. If he proves ready to start as a rookie, then Reggie Wells, who has been the left guard, will move to center, where he would be a strong contender to unseat Alex Stepanovich.

3. The third significant move was improving the quality and depth at defensive tackle. That was needed even before veteran Russell Davis left for Seattle as a free agent. He'd been the nose tackle for years. The "under" tackle the past two years, Darnell Dockett, has been a lively, athletic playmaker, relying on his quickness to compensate for his lack of size. But the signing of free agent Kendrick Clancy and the drafting of Gabe Watson and Jonathan Lewis changes the face of the interior line positions on a defense that, while ranking in the league's top 10, often could not make the critical stop in short-yardage and goal-line situations. These moves were calculated to turn that around and if they do, the Cardinals should be equipped to give the ball back to an improved offense that can put points on the board.

3a. Two other impact players were drafted. Tight end Leonard Pope might have the greatest immediate impact of any rookie on the roster. He is tall, athletic, a good receiver to work the seam to complement a fine outside group of receivers, and he can block. He will be very hard to keep out of the lineup and he would give the offense a dimension it has been lacking at tight end.
And quarterback Matt Leinart, a gift when he fell to the No. 10 draft position in the first round, very likely will have the greatest long-term impact for the team of anyone in this draft class. But he won't play this year unless Kurt Warner goes belly up or is injured -- and Warner has not played 16 games since the 2001 season.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was in Phoenix, touring the new stadium that opens in suburban Glendale in August and visiting with Cardinals ownership and management. The new stadium is sold out for 2006. It is to be the site of the 2008 Super Bowl. "The design is so bold, so striking and so in tune with the landscape out there," Tagliabue said. "I think that it is not only going to be a fun place but a wonderful place to play the Super Bowl."

The Cardinals are tweaking the concept of luxury suites and leasing what they market as "lofts" in the new building. "It is such a nice thing that the excitement around the stadium and the upswing around the team is coming at the same time," Tagliabue said.

--The most excitement in on offense, where RB Edgerrin James and QB Matt Leinart have been added to a group that includes WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and QB Kurt Warner. "We like the fact that we are strong at the receiving corps and we think with Edge, Marcel (Shipp) and J.J. (Arrington) we are strong at running back," coach Dennis Green said. "I think those are two really good signs. We also think we are strong on the offensive line. We've added to it and the guys we have brought back are going to help us offensively and I think we have some good players at the starting position."

--The Cardinals are promoting Steve Keim to head the college scouting department in a retooling of the operation. Scout George Boone is retiring. Dave Razzano, who was with the Rams for 14 seasons, is Boone's replacement. He will work the western part of the country. Lonnie Young is being promoted to supervise the west.

--Coach Dennis Green used the accident involving Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger to remind his players to make good decisions away from the game. "You always want the players to understand that anything they do off the field -- whether it be skiing, water skiing, sky diving, motorcycling -- there is a certain amount of judgment that has to be used about whether or not a guy should do those things," Green said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I really think they want to make this work, and I want to make it work, too. Coach (Clancy) Pendergast (Cardinals defensive coordinator) is pretty much a mad scientist out there. He's going to have something for you, so I think it's going to turn out good." - OLB Calvin Pace, on his off-season move to strong OLB from DE.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

--Elton Brown, tossed in as a starter at right guard as a rookie last season, took some snaps at right tackle during team organized workouts. Coach Dennis Green said it is nothing more than a depth-building move during off-season.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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Once the Rams made the decision to fire coach Mike Martz and hire Scott Linehan, a coach with an offensive pedigree, it was obvious the most important decision Linehan would make would be the hiring of a defensive coordinator. To be sure, Linehan came out smelling like a rose. After Jim Bates rejected a Rams offer, Linehan turned to Jim Haslett. The former Saints coach was unsure at first, but after meeting Linehan and liking his approach, Haslett agreed to be the Rams' defensive coordinator.

It might be the move that means the most for the Rams as they attempt to rebound from a 6-10 season. Players never bought into the system former coordinator tried to install, and the result was disaster. Now, everyone is on the same page, and Haslett's attacking style should lead to more than the 42 takeaways combined the Rams had over the last two seasons. On the player front, one of the first of many moves made to upgrade that defense was the signing of linebacker Will Witherspoon. Mostly an outside linebacker in Carolina, Witherspoon is ticketed for the middle of Haslett's defense.

While it could be argued he's somewhat undersized, Haslett believes Witherspoon's speed and athletic ability will make him a play-making force in the middle. As long as the defensive line can keep blockers away from him, Witherspoon should be able to roam the field and plug up a run defense that allowed numerous big plays last season. Several other defensive signings could be included as the third impact change, but Linehan didn't ignore the offense. A pass-catching tight end has always been a staple of his offenses, and the draft brought two bright prospects: Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd. Their arrivals, on the second and third round, respectively, led to the trade of Brandon Manumaleuna, an under-achiever who refused to work out with the team in St. Louis.

The question will be whether Klopfenstein and Byrd can block at an NFL level, but their presence in the passing game should open up the field even more for receivers Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Kevin Curtis, while also creating a threat in the red zone.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Rams' depth chart at quarterback got larger when the team acquired Dave Ragone from the Cincinnati Bengals. The Rams will give a seventh-round pick in the 2007 draft to the Texans only if Ragone makes the roster. The timing of the move is odd considering that Ragone, a former third-round pick of the Houston Texans, was waived by Houston in May and the Rams did not put in a waiver claim at the time. Ragone was claimed by Cincinnati and Indianapolis, and was awarded to the Bengals.

He has a connection with coach Scott Linehan when Linehan was a coach at the University of Louisville. The addition of Ragone creates a crowded position with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jeff Smoker already competing for the team's No. 3 job behind Marc Bulger and Gus Frerotte. Rarely, if ever, do teams take five quarterbacks to training camp. Ragone played in two games in his three seasons with the Texans. He started two games during his rookie season, and completed 20 of 40 passes for 135 yards, with one interception. He did run for 51 yards on six attempts.

The Texans sent him to NFL Europe in 2004 where he played for Berlin and was offensive MVP. He completed 158 of 251 passes for 1,746 yards with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. At one point, he threw 174 consecutive passes without an interception.

--Following the team's final practice at their recent minicamp, there was a barbecue for players, coaches and their families. The only negative was that the get-together had to be moves inside because of inclement weather. "It doesn't seem like you ever take time to kind of say hello to your new teammates," coach Scott Linehan said. "Shoot, I've got coaches' families that I haven't gotten a chance to meet yet.

"I said from the onset, I want people to feel great about being here, and have a great sense of pride in where they work. And I want the families to feel welcome."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think this is going to be a great system. Guys are making strides every day. We are still installing and getting things in. Things are improving; guys are getting better and understanding of everything they need to do." - LB Will Witherspoon on the team's defense.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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When the 49ers lost offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy to become the Packers' head coach, coach Mike Nolan hired Norv Turner, who had recently been fired as Raiders head coach. Gone is the West Coast system and its excessive verbiage, replaced with Turner's number system that stresses a power-running game and down-field passing. The system Turner brings to the 49ers is considered easier to learn than the complex West Coast system, but it means quarterback Alex Smith has been forced to study all offseason to learn a new offense. Most of his struggles from a year ago can be traced to directly to his being uncomfortable with is grasp of the system.

--The 49ers selected a much-needed offensive weapon with the No. 6 overall pick in the draft when they chose speedy tight end Vernon Davis of Maryland. Davis is the fastest player on the team, and gives the 49ers another viable option for Smith. Davis should team with tight end Eric Johnson, who caught 82 passes in 2004 but missed all of last season with a foot injury, and wideouts Antonio Bryant and Arnaz Battle, who was healthy for about two games last season, to give the 49ers' offense a better arsenal of targets in the passing game.

--Outside linebacker Julian Peterson was the 49ers' most accomplished player remaining after former GM Terry Donahue's infamous roster purge following 2003 season. Peterson was twice named the club's franchise player, a tag he never really had a chance to live up to because of a torn Achilles' tendon six games into '04. Peterson was slow to return to form last season, and he and his coaches never seemed to get a handle on how to best use his services in the club's new 3-4 defensive scheme. So when Peterson was again up for free agency, the 49ers made only a token effort to re-sign him, allowing him to skip to the intra-division Seahawks.

With the loss of Peterson, the 49ers lost a lot in the talent department. However, they hope to add something to their pass rush with the addition of first-round draft pick Manny Lawson, chosen with the No. 22 overall selection. Lawson will be asked to bring some heat to a pass rush that recorded one sack every 21.6 times an opposing quarterback dropped back.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Former Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who has entered the supplemental draft after being dismissed by Cavaliers coach Al Groh, is gaining plenty of attention from the 49ers. Coach Mike Nolan was the only NFL head coach to attend Brooks' workout June 22 in Charlottesville, Va. On June 28, the 49ers are scheduled to fly Brooks to the 49ers' team facility in Santa Clara, Calif. Niners vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said there are some "interesting guys" in this year's July 13 supplemental draft. McCloughan has already scouted Iowa State defensive end Jason Berryman.

When asked if the 49ers are expecting to take somebody in the draft, Nolan answered, "Do we expect to? No. But we're always investigating. We're interested in all of them." If the 49ers select Brooks with their first pick, they would forfeit a first-round selection in the 2007 draft. Brooks is expected to be chosen in the first round.

--Quarterback Alex Smith took a beating last season in his seven starts, as he was sacked 29 times while attempting just 165 passes. Among the improvements he sees from a year ago is the offensive line.
The 49ers added guard Larry Allen through free agency. If Jeremy Newberry is healthy, the 49ers will have pretty good depth. Last year, Kwame Harris, Adam Snyder, Eric Heitmann, David Baas and Justin Smiley each saw considerable action. This season, three of those players could begin the season as reserves. "Last year we were five deep and we had a couple injuries, and we were signing guys to play," Smith said. "That's not going to happen. We have seven or eight guys with experience."

--Linebacker Brandon Moore will take part as a judge June 27 at a San Francisco firehouse recipe cook-off, featuring three fire fighters at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco.

--Former 49ers center Frank Morze died May 28 after a long battle with heart disease. Morze was 73. Morze was a second-round draft pick (No. 21 overall) of the 49ers in 1955 from Boston College. He was the team's primarily starting center for five seasons.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't put too much stock in OTAs, as far as where we really are. They don't have pads on. (But) when you don't see the ball on the ground, and that we're lining up right, and communicating, and doing all the right things and being where they need to be, it leads you to believe we've gotten better" - 49ers coach Mike Nolan.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The 49ers' front office appears to have its act together this offseason, as they have already signed five of their nine draft picks to contracts: linebacker Parys Haralson, defensive backs Marcus Hudson and Vickiel Vaughn, defensive lineman Melvin Oliver and tight end Delanie Walker. The big ones will come later, as the club hopes to have first-round picks, tight end Vernon Davis and outside linebacker Manny Lawson, signed and ready to participate for the first day of training camp. The 49ers continue to search the waiver wire to see if help becomes available for their secondary. They would like to get more competition at cornerback and free safety, but it appears unlikely they can add a player of starter quality this late in the process.


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