NFC West News & Notes - 7/1/06

As July begins, teams start to focus in on pre-camp preparations. The Seahawks anticipate a renewed offensive attack, the Cadinals hope against hope that their offensive line can crawl out of the doldrums, the Rams look forward to change under a new coaching staff, and the 49ers just want to make some plays.


The Seahawks' offensive outlook entering training camp:

The NFL's highest-scoring offense returns with Pro Bowl players at the three most important positions. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, MVP running back Shaun Alexander and left tackle Walter Jones give eighth-year coach Mike Holmgren the strongest offensive foundation in the league.

All of which guarantees nothing.

"This is not the team that played in Detroit in the Super Bowl," Hasselbeck said following a recent minicamp practice. "We lost some guys from that team, and we gained some new guys.

"This team that's out here today hasn't won any games and we haven't lost any games. This is a brand new team, but we feel like we are a really good team on paper."

The Seahawks must replace three-time Pro Bowl left guard Steve Hutchinson and veteran receiver Joe Jurevicius, who proved a lot of people wrong by catching 10 touchdown passes last season. Hutchinson left for the Vikings after signing a controversial offer sheet packed with a poison pill that essentially prevented Seattle from matching. Jurevicius once appeared likely to return, but he could not pass up a chance to sign with his hometown Browns.

Losing Hutchinson and Jurevicius hurts. Both were outstanding players and rock-solid people in the locker room. On the flip side, Seattle's offense is certainly strong enough to overcome the loss of a guard and a backup receiver.

The addition of receiver Nate Burleson might actually upgrade the position. He was a 1,000-yard receiver for the Vikings in 2004. Injuries and an ineffective offense hurt him last season. Seattle expects Burleson, only 24 and a Seattle-area native, to give the team needed yards after the catch. Burleson will most likely start opposite flanker Darrell Jackson, who should be ready for the season after resting his surgically repaired right knee for several months. Trusty veteran Bobby Engram will then reassume the No. 3 role he filled so capably before becoming a starter last season. Engram ranked among the league leaders in receptions through six games last season, only to suffer a painful rib injury during an overtime loss at Washington. He still finished with 67 catches.

Health is probably the biggest concern in the passing game. Jackson missed nine games to injury last season. Engram missed three. Burleson had knee problems two years ago. And tight end Jerramy Stevens, a potentially dominant player despite his costly drops in Super Bowl XL, won't practice until mid-August after undergoing knee surgery.

The running game will remain solid unless Shaun Alexander takes the money and jogs. Alexander signed a fat contract during the offseason. The team is counting on him to play with the focus he showed during his MVP season in 2005.

Up front, Seattle will try to replace Hutchinson with capable backup Floyd Womack. The arrangement looks good on paper because Womack is a starting-caliber player (he was the starting right tackle heading into last season). The big question, again, is whether Womack can avoid the injuries that have kept him out of the lineup in past seasons. The team signed former Patriots lineman Tom Ashworth as insurance, but it's tough to imagine the career right tackle as a long-term replacement at guard.


--The Cardinals' offensive outlook entering training camp:

Job 1 for the Cardinals was re-building a running game that ranked last in the league. Opposing defenses now undoubtedly will take Edgerrin James, the team's key addition, seriously. And to lead the way for one of the premier running backs in the game, the Cardinals signed free-agent guard Milford Brown and drafted guard Deuce Lutui.

Brown appears destined to start on the right side. Lutui could start on the left, depending on the fate of veteran Reggie Wells, who is coming off an ankle injury and could move to center.

"That's really been our emphasis this year, to make sure we build a running game and figure out what we do well," said quarterback Kurt Warner. "Keep the right guys in position up front to allow them to succeed, and we think that's going to cure our red-zone woes more than anything."

The line underachieved and was perceived as the root of the rushing woes in a unit that led the league in passing even though foes knew the Cardinals had to throw the ball. To coax more out of it, the team hired a new line coach, Steve Loney, who has preached that he's ripping the rear-view mirrors off the group and focusing on what's ahead: blocking for one of the game's premier backs while protecting Warner to allow him to throw to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.

"I look at the potential," James said. "I see I have two receivers and I know what type of back I am. If we get the line on the same page we're going to move the ball down the field."

Two other key players were drafted. One should have great impact this year and one probably won't, but likely will have great impact over time. Tight end Leonard Pope -- all 6-feet-8, 265 pounds of him -- has athleticism, speed, hands and blocking skills. He will be hard to keep off the field and should be a dazzling complement to James, Fitzgerald and Boldin going up the seam. That is a dimension the Cardinals have lacked for years at a position that had been all but forgotten.

And rookie quarterback Matt Leinart, the 10th pick overall in the first round, won't play much this year unless Warner is injured or struggling. Leinart is biding his time, learning the offense and the league, and should be the franchise quarterback for many years to come.

Initially, Leinart might not even be No. 2. He will compete with John Navarre, whose praises coach Dennis Green has been singing for two years. Despite having been one-dimensional, the Cardinals offense ranked in the NFL top 10 last year. But with the balance of the running game and the renewed ability to convert in short-yardage and goal-line situations, it appears the unit has been retooled to put points on the scoreboard.

-- This shapes up as a big year for "Big." Everything about Leonard Davis has been big -- even his nickname -- EXCEPT for his consistency on the field.

But now, with his career at a crossroad and the Arizona Cardinals with a wad of cash available under the salary cap that they're itching to burn on deserving players, Davis has to come through in 2006. If he does, he can expect an extension offer before the season is complete, according to Rod Graves, vice president of operations.

Certainly big things were expected after the Cardinals made Davis the second pick overall in the 2001 draft. And he burst onto the NFL scene in memorable fashion, starting at right guard as a rookie and mauling foes. He is most remembered in 2001 for his pancake of Brian Urlacher. Since then, though, Davis has performed passably at right tackle, filling in because of injuries, and for two years at left tackle, where he was an All-America in college at Texas and where everyone believed he would flourish as a pro.

Unfortunately, since coach Dennis Green moved Davis there in 2004, Davis is most known for his blunders -- the false starts, including one in the closing seconds that caused a game-ending clock run-off when the Cardinals were in the red zone with a chance to score and win a game.

The Cardinals are about $9 million under the $102 million cap before they sign rookies. Their rookie pool could take half of that. They'll still have a cushion for emergency and plenty left to extend the high-performing veterans whose contracts are about to lapse -- those who earn it this season.

"We're going to be focused on where we want to spend that money," Graves said. "We may address a handful of guys over the course of the year."

Others on Graves' "watch list" will be starting middle linebacker Gerald Hayes, who missed all of last season to injury, and outside linebacker Orlando Huff, whose debut with the team in 2005 after signing as a free agent was something less than stellar.


The Rams' offensive outlook entering training camp:

New coach Scott Linehan knew there weren't a lot of changes needed on an offense that was still productive during last year's 6-10 season. The Rams ranked ninth overall and fourth in passing despite having quarterback Marc Bulger miss four games.

The biggest change is the offensive system. With Mike Martz off to Detroit, Linehan, along with coordinator Greg Olson, have implemented a new system that will still be aggressive, but will also give the quarterback the ability to audible. The verbiage, while new, won't be as lengthy and difficult to absorb as was the case with Martz's offense.

One of Linehan's moves was to bring in Gus Frerotte as the backup to Bulger. Frerotte started 16 games for the Dolphins in 2005 where Linehan was the offensive coordinator and led the team to a 9-7 record.`Tight end will be a position of big change. Under-achiever Brandon Manumaleuna was traded on draft weekend to San Diego after the Rams selected Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd on the second and third round, respectively.

Linehan loves to throw to the tight end, and the hope is both rookies will contribute. The question is blocking, one area the Rams are still looking at as training camp approaches.

Depth on the offensive line was acquired with the signing of tackle Todd Steussie, who can also play guard, if necessary. In the draft, the Rams selected guards Tony Palmer and Mark Setterstrom. However, depth at running back is still a question. Tony Fisher of the Packers was signed as a free agent, but it remains uncertain whether Marshall Faulk will retire or play this season. If Faulk retires, the Rams will likely be in the market for another back.

Former Vikings runner Moe Williams visited the team in late May.


The 49ers' offensive outlook entering training camp:

The 49ers have added more playmakers on offense, as well as one of the best offensive linemen in NFL history. The club set out in the offseason to give quarterback Alex Smith more of a supporting cast. Last season, Smith was surrounded with players who were just trying to find their ways on the NFL landscape.

Perhaps the biggest change to the offense comes at coordinator, where Norv Turner lands after getting fired as Raiders head coach after two seasons. The so-called West Coast Offense is out, and Turner brings with him an offense that relies on a power running game and downfield passing. The biggest addition to the offense, literally, is up front. Left guard Larry Allen signed with the 49ers one day after the Cowboys released the 10-time Pro Bowl performer. When Allen flew to the Bay Area, the 49ers sent representatives through airport security to get to him at the first opportunity to prevent the possibility the Raiders might try to get to him first.

Allen should help in the run game, but most of the improvements this offseason have come in the passing game. Antonio Bryant, who caught 69 passes for 1,009 yards and four touchdowns with the Browns last season, comes to the 49ers as a free agent. He takes over for enigmatic Brandon Lloyd, whom the 49ers traded to the Redskins for two draft picks.

The headliner in the offense could be tight end Vernon Davis, whom the 49ers selected with the No. 6 overall pick. Davis is likely the fastest player on the team, and he will be expected to bring some big-play ability to a position that was severely lacking last season.

Although he's no newcomer, the 49ers are also expecting tight end Eric Johnson to contribute. Johnson missed all of last season with a foot injury. He caught 82 passes for 825 yards in 2004.

It is possible Davis might not be the only offensive contributor from the draft. Receiver Brandon Williams is vying for the job as the No. 3 receiver. Also, Penn State quarterback-turned-running back Michael Robinson had an impressive offseason and could fit into the mix as the third-down back. Top Stories