Shaun Alexander's foot isn't a factor even if there's still a small crack in the bone that kept him sidelined part of last season. The former league MVP played well when his blocking was there late last season, topping 100 yards in the divisional playoff game at Chicago. Scans showed the crack was still there at that time, but it wasn't considered to be a problem.
It's still not considered a problem, despite wire-service reports suggesting there could still be a broken bone in the foot. The stories stemmed from lighthearted comments Alexander made about possibly having the bone checked out after minicamps.
"He is not going to have it looked at," an exasperated coach Mike Holmgren said. "No one is going to have it looked at. I haven't looked at it, he hasn't looked at it, no one has looked at it.
"I don't know why he said what he said. I don't know why whoever wrote it, wrote it. I just don't get it, but he is fine. We X-rayed it after the season was over. How long has it been?
"You saw him running out here, he is running all over the place. That is a non-story, honest to goodness. There is nothing wrong with Shaun Alexander."
Alexander appears to be working more diligently in hopes of avoiding another injury-affected season. He remained in Seattle this offseason to participate in the conditioning program, something he hadn't done in years past. He is lifting weights more aggressively and appears to be trimmer than usual for this time of year. He's also very confident in the Hawks' chances this season. Asked whether the 49ers and other division rivals had closed ground in the offseason, Alexander shot back with, "They needed to. When you win the division three years in a row, it says enough."
And yet he knows the Hawks could have a hard time claiming a fourth consecutive NFC West crown. "I think it's going to be a challenge this year, but challenges are good," Alexander said. "We've never been a team that wants to hope that someone else plays bad. We don't care what anybody is doing. We want to go out and just do what we do best, and that takes care of itself."
--Injuries, defection and retirement have diminished the Seahawks' offensive line over the last year or so. Coach Mike Holmgren hopes a little motivation can help restore the unit to past dominance.
Right tackle Sean Locklear, a restricted free agent tendered to a first-round pick, was put on alert. The right-guard spot remains open as well, while the team hopes center Chris Spencer will bounce back from offseason shoulder surgeries. The emphasis now is on the right side, where not even Locklear can take a starting job for granted.
"I want a competitive situation on the right side of the line," Holmgren said following the team's postdraft minicamp. "We're going to go into camp that way. I think we have a number of good players and I guess the biggest thing is, Ray Willis has stepped up a little bit.
"I'm going to see who wants it the most."
Willis was a fourth-round pick from Florida in 2005. He has the look of a prototypical right tackle: 6-feet-6 and 325 pounds. He also has the kind of mean streak that can serve a player well at the guard spot. "Ray Willis played a lot of right guard in our minicamp here," Holmgren said. "He did very well and he is a big, strong guy."
Overall line depth isn't a big concern. But that would change if Spencer couldn't return as expected. Veteran Chris Gray is the favorite to start at right guard, but he would play center if Spencer were unavailable. Floyd Womack could play guard or tackle if he can avoid additional injuries. Tom Ashworth can play right tackle. Gray turns 37 in June, but he remains a viable option. He knows the system and the tricks of his trade. The team would like to develop younger alternatives, including fourth-round choice Mansfield Wrotto. But Gray might be the best choice on a one-season basis.
The left side of the line is set with perennial Pro Bowl tackle Walter Jones and promising second-year guard Rob Sims, a fourth-round choice from Ohio State. Sims can be a very good run blocker.
"I think if everyone is here and healthy, we are pretty good and we have some depth," Holmgren said. "Then the right side of our line, we will let them battle it out a little bit."
--Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck participated in all but a few aspects of the team's postdraft camp, a positive development for the Hawks after their quarterback underwent surgery on his left shoulder.
"This was a great camp for me just in terms of where I was coming in and where I am coming out," he said. "So much better throwing the ball. This is the first change-of-direction stuff that I've done this offseason and the first time really I've done anything with my body other than my left arm." Hasselbeck underwent surgery in February. He is also starting to lift weights in the team's offseason program after following an individual regimen as part of his rehabilitation.
--Retired center Robbie Tobeck is selling insurance and weighs about 255 pounds. He couldn't come back if the team wanted him. "He's done," Hasselbeck said. You can tell. You can tell he has no interest. He doesn't even like to talk about football anymore." Hasselbeck called himself one of Tobeck's most loyal insurance customers. But he was a little bummed after Tobeck mailed him $5 gift cards for customer referrals. "I was kind of hoping for a $10 coffee card," Hasselbeck quipped.
--Receiver Nate Burleson reworked his back-loaded $49 million contract so it more accurately reflected his actual pay. The team had pumped up the final few years of the deal as part of the poison-pill tactics that essentially prevented Minnesota from matching the offer. "There was a lot of back-end dollars I knew I wasn't going to see and they knew I wasn't going to see," Burleson told the Tacoma News Tribune. "I'm a low-controversy guy, so if you ask me to do something and obviously it wasn't changing where I stood financially with this organization, I was OK with it."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We talked a lot about it, but talk is cheap. If we put it on film and we are honest with ourselves everyday ... did we get any better? So far we felt everyday we have gotten better and want to keep taking steps forward and keep learning." -- MLB Lofa Tatupu on prospects for improvement with Patrick Kerney and Deon Grant onboard.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Jim Mora is making an immediate impact on the Seattle secondary. Players are responding to his high-energy style. Being a former head coach gives Mora credibility that other assistants struggle to match.
Turning cornerback Marcus Trufant into a dominant player is one of Mora's top priorities. Trufant was the 11th player chosen in the 2003 draft. He has been good but not great. Mora moved Trufant back to the left side in an effort to help Trufant take the next step.
"That is where most of the premier corners work," Mora said. "I think this guy has the ability to be a premier corner. I also know early in his career when he played left corner he was very, very good over there. I really believe 'Tru' has the ability to take another step and go to another level and be a shut-down corner. He's a great kid and he's a hard worker and he takes to coaching and he's fun to be around."
MEDICAL WATCH: C Chris Spencer does not plan to have another shoulder surgery, good news for the offensive line. Spencer will probably have to play through pain this season, but surgery would have knocked him out for months.
--QB Matt Hasselbeck could resume a regular practice schedule for June minicamps.
--DT Marcus Tubbs remains ahead of schedule in his return from microfracture surgery. He could be ready for training camp.
Edgerrin James will need a bit more time before getting to know the new linemen who were hired to make his life easier. James is missing the first day of this weekend's mandatory mini-camp that runs May 12-14 to attend a relative's funeral in Florida. Coach Ken Whisenhunt excused James, who managed to reach 1,000 rushing yards last season despite not having a 100-yard game until three months into the season in one of the league's lamest rushing attacks.
James is to join his teammates for sessions on May 13 and 14. When he does, he'll find only one player on the first-team line in the same position he was in for the season finale. Missing a day of mini-camp isn't a major setback, although the line and the offense of Whisenhunt are new. But it does follow an off-season in which James was a privileged character. He was allowed to do the bulk of his off-season work at home in Florida while Whisenhunt made it clear that he wanted his players working at the team's Tempe, Ariz., training facility in its new weight room under the direction of new strength and conditioning coach John Lott.
"Edge called and let me know about the death in his family," Whisenhunt said. "Obviously, it's more important for him to be there Saturday for the services and for his family." James did come to Tempe for a three-day voluntary camp in mid-April. The Cardinals expect to have at least 84 players at this mini-camp. It is especially important for the team's whopping group of 20 undrafted rookies, who hope to stick with the team at least through training camp.
--Edgerrin James, meet Levi Brown, Mike Gandy and Al Johnson. The Cardinals have made a significant financial commitment up front in the wake of an anemic rushing game -- although James did cross the 1,000-yard mark rushing -- and porous protection for quarterback Matt Leinart in 2006.
The changes were made despite the unit finding itself during the closing weeks of the season, when the team won four of its final seven games and James finally had a 100-yard afternoon. While Brown, Gandy and Oliver Ross vie for the two tackle positions, it appears that Johnson, the backup in Dallas last year, is well on his way to nudging aside starting center Nick Leckey.
Johnson was drafted in the second round in 2003 by the Cowboys and appeared headed toward the starting job. A knee injury, however, ended his rookie season but he came back the following season and won the job. Leckey started the final 11 games last year, setting up a competition in training camp.
"In the end I think it's like me and Andre (Gurode) in Dallas," Johnson said. "We still had a friendship and the communication was there. But when it came to practice, the gloves are off and the best man wins."
--The Cardinals are to be the subject of NFL Network's "Inside Minicamp" series on Saturday (May 12). The network will have a crew on the scene in Tempe.
--Dates and times have been set for the Cardinals' 2007 preseason schedule. They open at Oakland on Saturday, Aug. 11 at 7 p.m. That is followed by homes games vs. Houston (Saturday, Aug. 18, 1 p.m.) and San Diego (Saturday, Aug. 25, 7 p.m.). They wrap up preseason play at Denver (Thursday, Aug. 30, 7 p.m.). The Cardinals' University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale will be site of the Super Bowl this season.
--The Cardinals have one of the league's most solid kicking games with PK Neil Rackers, P Scott Player and LS Nathan Hodel. They're going to share their expertise, along with former NFL kicker and now Director of Community Relations Luis Zendejas, in a free kicking camp on May 20. It is open to all high school kickers, punters and long snappers in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Entries must be received by May 15.
--Even the Cardinals have caught Jordin Fever over "American Idol" semifinalist Jordin Sparks, a native of Glendale and daughter of former NFL DB Phillippi Sparks. Cardinals cheerleaders and their mascot were part of a pep rally for Jordin's homecoming at Westgate City Center Friday (May 11), just across the street from the team's stadium. Jordin Sparks sang the national anthem at the Cardinals' opener in the new stadium last season. With the facility playing host to the Super Bowl this season, one wonders if the NFL might tap the local lass for anthem duty once again.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's one of those things you never want to go through again. I wouldn't say I accepted the (backup) role. I think once you accept not being the starter you have already lost." -- Cardinals C Al Johnson, on losing the starting job in Dallas in 2006 before signing with the Big Red as a free agent to battle Nick Leckey for the starting role.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Cardinals' rookie pool is just under $4.2 million. They had only five drafted rookies, including first-round pick Levi Brown, a tackle from Penn State, after trading away their fourth- and sixth-round picks. They signed 20 undrafted rookies.
--WR-KR Ahmad Merritt, formerly a return specialist in Chicago who has not played since the 2004 season, signed a one-year contract. It is a depth signing. The return duty is expected to go to fifth-round draft pick Steve Breaston. Merritt has returned 65 kickoffs for 1,434 yards (22.1 yard avg.) and 10 punts for 71 yards. He was an undrafted rookie in Chicago in 2000.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Consider 2006 a lost season for Claude Terrell. Now, he wants to make up for it. So far, so good. "It's been quite impressive," coach Scott Linehan said. "He's been working very hard since he's been back, and his focus is on competing and making the team. I'm always going to be open to a person's newfound motivation, and (his) is much better than it was. It's been a 180 to this point." Linehan was distressed with Terrell at the end of the 2006 season when it was revealed Terrell had left the team for apparent wrist surgery, but never had it. Terrell had injured his wrist during his rookie season in 2005 when he started 10 games.
He underwent surgery in Jan. 2006, but was able to do little during the team's off-season program, and then pain returned at the start of training camp. "I rushed back, and it never got the proper rest it needed to heal," Terrell said. As for the second surgery that never occurred, Terrell said, "I went to see one of the best wrist doctors in the country, and he was like, 'You don't need surgery, you just need rest.'"
Terrell also said the doctor told him a second surgery "could possibly be career-ending. That was a no-brainer, once he said that. I mean, career-ending. ... I'm just getting my start." He wasn't present at the start of the team's off-season program, but has been in attendance over the last several weeks, seeking to show Linehan he is committed. "It's another challenge," he said. I'm looking at it like a rookie year all over again."
The Rams have their rookie minicamp this weekend, with some other younger players invited. Terrell is one of them. He said, "My wrist feels fine, and I'm looking forward to it (minicamp), actually. If I start at the bottom of the ladder, I'll work my way up to the top."
-- An era came to an end after the 2006 season, even though it officially isn't over until June. Longtime Rams and NFL personnel executive Charley Armey retired, and he was given a going-away party last Thursday (May 10). "It's the last hurrah for Charley Armey," Armey said. "It's gone by real fast. That's one of the few problems about doing something that you really love, something that you really have a passion for - it goes by so fast." Armey was hired by then-Rams coach Dick Vermeil after Vermeil was hired in 1997 and helped put together the roster that got the Rams to two Super Bowls.
He became a pro personnel executive last year when Tony Softli was hired as vice president of player personnel, with the understanding he would retire this year. He stayed away during this year's draft preparations.
"It was important for the new guy that took my place, Tony Softli, to come in and establish himself and run things the way he wants them run," Armey said. "Everybody does things differently."
So it was that the 67-year-old Armey watched the draft on television this year, just like millions of other fans. He said, "It was kind of fun to sit back and be a draftnik. I watched the entire thing from start to finish. It was kind of different."
Armey saluted those he has worked with, including coaches, but not surprisingly failed to mention former Rams coach Mike Martz. Things weren't good between the twp in Martz's final years.
Said Armey, "I've worked with some great coaches that knew talent: (Bill) Parcells and (Bill) Belichick, and Marv Levy, Forrest Gregg, and of course, Dick Vermeil. ... Luckily, some of it rubbed off."
His only off-hand reference to Martz came when he was asked what was the highest and lowest moment in his football life.
Highest: "Winning the Super Bowl (against Tennessee), obviously. Being in the Super Bowl, and winning the Super Bowl, are totally different. ... There's an unbelievable feeling knowing you've won it."
Lowest? Losing the Super Bowl two seasons later to New England. "My biggest disappointment is that we didn't give Marshall Faulk the ball 35 times and let him be the MVP and win that Super Bowl in his hometown (New Orleans). That's the one thing in football that haunts me, and it will haunt me forever."
--WR Shaine Smith is at the Rams' rookie minicamp, starting his quest to be the third straight unheralded receiver from Hofstra to make an NFL team. Devale Ellis is currently with Detroit and Marques Colston with New Orleans. "I've been through enough trials and tribulations that once I get into a camp, I know I can make it," Smith says. "How I get there is how I get there."
Said Ellis, "Shaine's a playmaker, and that's what they want in the NFL. He played in an offense where you need to know how to read coverages. We pretty much ran every route in the NFL. Shaine already knows how to do that." Added Hofstra receivers coach Jaime Elizondo, "His work ethic will surprise people. Consistency is in the details, and Shaine is figuring that out."
--Coach Scott Linehan talked about then irony of the off-season. On the first day of free agency, the Rams traded a fifth-round pick to Detroit for defensive end James Hall. A few days before the draft, they sent a fifth-round pick they had acquired from Buffalo for defensive end Anthony Hargrove to Kansas City for kick returner Dante Hall. Then, on draft day, the Rams traded a fourth-round pick to the Lions for two of the Lions' four fifth-round picks, including the one they got from the Rams for Hall. "Essentially we were able to get Dante Hall and James Hall for a fourth-round pick," Linehan said.
With the fifth-round choices, the Rams selected center Dustin Fry and nose tackle Clifton Ryan.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The eye in the sky don't lie; just watch the practice tape every day. This and that can be said, but when you see actual footage of what's being done, all that should be put to bed." - Guard Claude Terrell on coaches watching tape of practices.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Optimism is running high with the 49ers, who spent nearly $40 million in guaranteed money in free agency and had seven draft picks in the first four rounds. But when the 49ers convened their minicamp last week in Santa Clara, California, coach Mike Nolan had a simple message for them. He wanted to emphasize that the 49ers had to prove they were better on the field. After all, they have won just 13 games the past three seasons. "Expectations come with a price and you have to be willing to pay that price," Nolan said. "That's what our guys have to understand and that's what we were talking about right after practice."
The 49ers acquired at least five players this offseason who are viewed as starters. The club signed cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis, outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin in free agency. They selected inside linebacker Patrick Willis with the No. 11 overall pick in the draft. The 49ers have not ranked among the top dozen defenses in the NFL since they finished the 1997 season at No. 1 in yards allowed. The 49ers did not focus all of their energy on defense, however.
Upgrades were also made on offense, where the team added three receivers to the mix: Ashley Lelie in free agency, Darrell Jackson in a trade and Jason Hill with a third-round draft pick. The 49ers also traded up for a second pick in the first round to nab offensive tackle Joe Staley. "They are feeling good with themselves, but if you don't pay the price you don't get what you expect," Nolan said. "We have a lot of work to do. The players see it, all of that is good stuff, but in the end you have to play the game on Sundays."
Thus far, Nolan has liked what he has seen. The club is getting near-perfect attendance in its offseason program. They will not hold a second minicamp this offseason, as Nolan has opted for 12 days of organized time activities, spanning the first three weeks of June. Training camp is set to open July 28 at the team's practice facility in Santa Clara.
--In his first minicamp with the 49ers, rookie inside linebacker Patrick Willis felt as if he was back in school. He never played in a 3-4 defense at Ole Miss, so everything he was learning was new to him.
"I've got to learn it all," Willis said. "You got to crawl before you can walk, and that's where I'm at right now. It makes me mad that I can't get everything right, but that's part of learning. You have to make mistakes and learn from them." Willis has plenty of time to learn. He plans to return to workout with his new team full-time, beginning May 16. Willis said he received a lot of help from the 49ers' veteran inside linebackers, including Derek Smith, Brandon Moore and Jeff Ulbrich.
"When we're out there they try to help me as much as they can and say, 'Calm down.' I have to," Willis said. "They're helping me all they can. They've been great. When they tell me they're learning stuff too, I don't feel as bad." Willis will compete with Smith for a starting job at the weak inside linebacker spot during training camp. Smith recorded more than 120 tackles each of his first nine seasons in the NFL, but he had 93 tackles last season. Smith was bothered by an eye condition that affected his play a year ago. He was unable to move his left eye up and to the left. The problem was diagnosed as a muscle strain. He underwent surgery February 26. He said his eyesight is fine, but added, "In my left eye, I'll always have permanent damage up there."
Smith, 32, figures to play two more seasons -- the length of the contract he signed last year. Therefore, he said he was not surprised when the 49ers invested a first-round pick in Willis. "I'm sure he's a great athlete and a great football player, if they took him that high," Smith said. "That's the way the NFL works. I think he'll make our team better.
"You always have to be thinking ahead."
Willis is also thinking ahead. After all, he figures to be with the 49ers for a long time, so he has to place his current struggles in perspective. "I'm going to be here for a while, so I'm going to have to make it work," he said.
--The 49ers plan to enter training camp with four quarterbacks. While starter Alex Smith and backup Trent Dilfer appear to have their jobs set, there could be some competition for the No. 3 job.
Undrafted rookie Luke Getsy of Akron made a strong first impression during the team's minicamp, though coach Mike Nolan isn't quite certain yet about his name. "The quarterback, Getsy, or whatever his name is, got my attention," Nolan said. "He can be a good prospect down the road. He seems to handle himself very well." Getsy will compete with Shaun Hill to be the team's No. 3 quarterback.
--Nolan said he was pleased with the athleticism he has seen from the team's nine draft picks. "You have to temper your emotions and your excitement because we are out here in shorts," Nolan said. "Every year you learn the same thing: They look great now and then you get to camp."
--The 49ers found it more than a little ironic that receiver Keyshawn Johnson said the team would have a top-10 pick in next year's draft during his guest commentator appearance on the NFL Network, then voiced a desire to play for the 49ers a couple days later when the Panthers cut him. The 49ers were not interested in adding Johnson to their roster.
--The 49ers have given permission to guard Justin Smiley and his agent, Pat Dye Jr., to speak with teams about a trade. Smiley had a good season a year ago but he remains far apart from the 49ers in contract-extension talks. He is entering the final year of his contract. "I want to be here," Smiley said. "I'm not asking to big-time anybody or over-the-top them. I just want what's fair. We'd make it worth their while and discount them to be here. But right now, we're far apart." The Ravens, Broncos, Seahawks and Bears expressed interest in Smiley prior to the draft, he said.
--Right tackle Kwame Harris is also the subject of ongoing trade talks. While Smiley has spoken to Nolan on several occasions, Harris said he does not plan to clarify his situation. "I leave the business aspect up to my agent and the 49ers," Harris said. "I stay pretty divorced from the business side. That side has the most bureaucracy and red tape and stuff that makes you want to pull your hair out." Harris' contract expires at the end of the season, and the sides have not entered into serious negotiations for an extension. In light of the team selecting tackle Joe Staley in the first round, the 49ers are expected to weigh offers to trade Harris.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think all of the guys that we drafted caught my attention. Every one of them has the opportunity to make us better. Again, they are in shorts so the pads will tell us better. If they do the same thing in pads, I will be excited." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan, evaluating his rookies at the team's first minicamp.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The 49ers plan to add another three to five players before training camp opens in late July. One position at which they are likely to add a player is fullback. The 49ers are looking for more competition behind starter Moran Norris. Zak Keasey, a converted linebacker at Princeton, is the only other fullback on the roster. Running back Michael Robinson, as well as tight end Delanie Walker, can also handle some of the fullback or H-back chores. The club liked what it saw from two undrafted tryout players, linebacker Steve Dildine (Washington State) and offensive lineman Sean Estrada (Penn), and signed them to the roster.
MEDICAL WATCH: WR Ashley Lelie (right quadriceps strain) was injured early in the team's first minicamp practice and did not return. His availability for the OTAs in June is unclear. Coach Mike Nolan expects the other players who missed the minicamp to be held out of OTAs to ensure they will be ready for the opening of training camp in late July. Those players are newly acquired receiver Darrell Jackson (toe), cornerback Shawntae Spencer (bone spurs), offensive linemen Jonas Jennings (shoulder), Justin Smiley (shoulder) and Eric Heitmann (leg), and tight end Delanie Walker (shoulder).