NFC West: Who To Watch in Training Camp

Several players per team will find themselves in the eye of the hurricane as camps open. There could be a rookie required to step and start right away, a disappointing veteran who needs to show out to save his job, or a free agent who must repay a big team investment with his performance. Scout.com looks at the NFC West, and the players who will find themselves the focus of training camp.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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--CB Marcus Trufant:
If Marcus Trufant is ever going to develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback, this would probably be the year. The fourth-year player has fought through shoulder problems since Seattle made him the 11th player chosen in the 2003 draft. He is finally healthy heading into camp, giving him his best shot at realizing his potential. "I feel I have not really underachieved, but I haven't made it to the point where I want to be," Trufant said. "It's a first time in a while where I'm just on page and able to work hard and get better."

--CB Kelly Jennings:
Fellow corner Kelly Jennings hopes to avoid the kinds of injuries that have stunted Trufant's development. A rookie from Miami, Jennings went through minicamps as the starter on the left side, opposite Trufant. He is definitely a player to watch as Seattle funnels first-round talent at one of the positions where it is needed most.

Jennings' cover skills were readily apparent at minicamps, but he is on the small side and still must prove his college durability will translate to the NFL game. Jennings has a good chance to start as a rookie, something that doesn't happen much around the league.

--DB Jordan Babineaux: Also in the secondary, Jordan Babineaux has a chance to challenge for significant playing time, if only his surgically repaired shoulder will allow him to compete. Babineaux was expected back for training camp after missing minicamps to recuperate from surgery. He flashed across the national stage last season by picking off Drew Bledsoe to set up a dramatic last-second victory over the Cowboys; that kind of play-making ability makes Babineaux a candidate to play at corner, safety or both, depending on the need.

Babineaux is in the mix at corner if Jennings isn't quite ready to grab the starting job. Safety is another option because starters Ken Hamlin and Michael Boulware are coming off injuries. Babineaux played safety in college, but Seattle has played him mostly at corner.

--WR Nate Burleson: Burleson has a shot at challenging Darrell Jackson as Seattle's featured player at the position. Jackson is the better player at this point in their careers, but he has yet to fully overcome knee problems that sidelined him for 10 games last season. Burleson, signed from Minnesota as a restricted free agent, has shown good run-after-the-catch ability, something the Seahawks value because they throw so many short and intermediate routes.

Burleson will probably start opposite Jackson and ahead of Bobby Engram. He was a 1,000-yard receiver with the Vikings in 2004 and there's no reason he can't put up similar numbers in Seattle's offense.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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--DT Kenny King:
King is more a fixture in the physician's waiting room than in the lobby of the team hotel on game day, but he could be the equivalent of a high-quality free-agent acquisition.
When the Cardinals last saw King on the field, their 2003 fifth-round pick, he was set to be their starting "under" tackle. That was during preseason of 2004. Then he suffered a wrist injury that required season-ending surgery. He didn't play a down.

Hopes were high a year ago that King would come back ready to challenge Darnell Dockett, who was forced to step in as a rookie starter in 2004, moving inside from outside, where his speed was an asset but his size a liability. But aggravations again forced surgery that sidelined King for the entire season.

He now returns after being away for two years, eager to reclaim his job. The coaches loved him two years ago, but now Dockett is a two-year starter who has found a way to make plays with his lively athleticism. And over the past two years, Dockett has beefed up to 290 pounds and now weighs slightly more than King (284). Both are 6-4. "The injuries in training camp the past two years have made me more determined," King said on his Web site. "No player wants their career to be dictated by injury. I've continued to work and expect to come out and make an impact in 2006.

"You would think that mathematically it couldn't happen again. I will just have to prepare myself mentally and not worry about the injuries of the past."

--DT Gabe Watson: Is Watson man or myth? There were all kinds of talk during the draft about Watson having first-round potential but no work ethic, which caused him to plummet to a second-day draft position in the fourth round. He developed a reputation for being a dog at Michigan, where even Watson acknowledged that he sometimes took plays off. That won't get it now that he's getting paid to knock people around, and early indications in the various camps and off-season workouts since the draft give a hint that Watson might be serious about reversing his image.

If he does, it will be an interesting battle with free agent Kendrick Clancy for the starting nose tackle position that became available when long-time starter Russell Davis went to Seattle in free agency. At 6-3, 340, Watson is a stud physically, exactly what the Cardinals need in the middle of a porous defensive line that, while ranking among the league statistical top 10, never could make the timely stop to turn the ball over to the offense.

Watson will either be a fantastic draft value or just the latest in a long line of Cardinals draft flops.

--RG Milford Brown: The Cardinals couldn't run to the training room last year -- although quite a few of them limped there. They had the second-worst rushing game, statistically, since the NFL-AFL merger, unable to convert on third and short and in goal-line situations. In the face of such shortcomings, the finger always is pointed at the offensive line, and there was plenty of blame to go around. Eric Brown, a promising rookie, was forced to play right guard too soon because of injuries. Now, he should be able to learn at a more comfortable pace with free-agent Milford Brown coming in and taking the job.

Brown is regarded as a fierce run blocker -- but so was right tackle Oliver Ross when the Cardinals signed him a year ago, only to watch him go through an injury-filled, disappointing first year in the desert.
The Cardinals can't afford a similar disappointment with Brown, not with RB Edgerrin James now in the backfield expecting to find holes, or with aging Kurt Warner often being a sitting duck with his immobility.

Brown is among a handful of offensive linemen who are key to the Cardinals fortunes: Ross has to come back healthy and step it up, LT Leonard Davis needs to have the breakout season expected since he was the second pick overall in the 2001 draft, Alex Stepanovich needs to re-emerge from injury at center, rookie LG Deuce Lutui probably is too good to keep off the field. But if Milford Brown comes through, it wouldn't be surprising to see all the other pieces fall into place around him.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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--Nose tackle Jimmy Kennedy:
Kennedy is currently the replacement for Ryan Pickett, who left as a free agent for Green Bay. Coaches have been impressed with his off-season work ethic and attitude, but it's now time to for it to happen on the field The 12th overall pick in the 2003 draft, Kennedy got off to a tough start with line coach Bill Kollar, and never responded to Kollar's brand of coaching. Kennedy claims things will be different now, with Kollar in Buffalo and Brian Baker coaching the defensive line.

He has the size and ability to engage blockers and keep them away from the second level, so linebackers can make plays. Solid play from Kennedy will be a key factor in how much the defense improves this season.

--Guard Richie Incognito: Some believe the left guard position is his to lose, but when the pads come on July 27, it will be the first time he will be wearing them since the 2003 season at Nebraska. The feisty Incognito did not play in 2004, then injured his knee at the scouting combine in Feb. 2005. Despite that, the Rams selected him in the third round of the draft, believing he has first-round talent. After rehabbing the knee, he was finally signed in late September, and practiced once with the team in October.

He had several confrontations with coaches when he missed further rehab sessions, and his attitude was seriously questioned. However, by all accounts, he was a model citizen this off-season, and during mini-camps worked with the first unit at right guard, center and then left guard. He will be competing with Claude Terrell at left guard, and could have the edge because Terrell was unable to do much in the off-season because of a wrist injury.

--"Slash" Marques Hagans: Coach Scott Linehan has big plans for this year's fifth-round pick, who was a quarterback at Virginia, but whose main position with the Rams will be wide receiver. Hagans will be given an opportunity to be at least the punt returner, and possibly also return kickoffs. Linehan has also talked about employing him as a running back, passer and even emergency defensive back.
He will have to show his ability as a receiver among a deep group to ensure there is a spot on the 45-man game-day roster.

--Defensive end Anthony Hargrove: He has started at times during his first two seasons with the team, but has yet to make the impact expected after being a third-round pick in 2004. Part of that has been learning a position he played for only one season in college, and part is his propensity to be undisciplined in the running game. Coaches hope the new system will bring out the best in him, and that additional maturity will also help. Veteran defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, signed after being released by the Cowboys, is being counted on to make the players around him, including Hargrove, more productive.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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--QB Alex Smith:
It might be a bit simplistic to conclude the 49ers' hopes this season ride on Smith's ability to live up to his billing as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft. But it is safe to say Smith must play a lot better in his second year than he did as a rookie quarterback for the 49ers to be competitive. Although Smith ended the season with back-to-back victories -- the 49ers' first consecutive victories since midway through 2003 -- he experienced more than his share of difficulties. He threw 11 interceptions and just one touchdown while starting seven games.

He often looked unsure of himself, a condition only exacerbated by the lack of experience and talent around which he was surrounded. Smith should get assistance from a better supporting cast, and he hopes to catch on quickly to new coordinator Norv Turner's offense.

--LB Manny Lawson: The 49ers made virtually no attempt to re-sign veteran outside linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter. Coach Mike Nolan believed their production last season did not warrant the kind of contracts they attracted from the Seahawks and Redskins, respectively. The 49ers did nothing to offset the pass-rush potential of those players lost in free agency, but they grabbed someone who should provide some sacks with the No. 22 overall pick. Lawson will line up at outside linebacker in the 49ers' 3-4 scheme. The 49ers do not have any proven pass rushers at the outside linebacker positions, but they expect Lawson to adapt fast and made an immediate contribution.

Lawson earned most valuable defensive lineman award his senior season at North Carolina State over No. 1 overall pick and teammate Mario Williams.

--C Jeremy Newberry: The two-time Pro Bowl center has been banged up for several seasons. He should be able to begin practice when camp opens, but the question is whether his surgically repaired right knee can withstand the punishment.

Newberry gutted out 10 games last season on a right knee that had no cartilage remaining. He underwent extensive surgery in December and reports feeling no pain as camp approaches. If he is able to play and revert back to his Pro Bowl form, the 49ers' offensive line will be stronger and deeper than it's been in a while.

--WR Antonio Bryant:
The 49ers were eager to dump Brandon Lloyd, their top receiver last season. Lloyd was a regular on the highlight reels with his acrobatic catches, but he refused to go over the middle and he rubbed teammates and coaches the wrong way with his attitude.

Bryant has not been immune to problems in his NFL career, but the 49ers believe Bryant is a highly competitive player who has a much better work ethic and desire to succeed on the field than Lloyd. Bryant led the Browns last season with 69 catches for 1,009 yards and four touchdowns. Because of the state of the 49ers' passing attack, it might be difficult for him to improve on those numbers. The big question is how he'll respond when he goes a game or two without seeing many catchable balls come his way.


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