How much will the Seahawks miss leading receiver Darrell Jackson? Offensive coordinator Gil Haskell thinks the Seahawks would miss him more if Jackson had been able to practice consistently in recent seasons. "Darrell had a good career here, he's a good man," Haskell said. "The last two years he was hurt a lot, did not practice very much and that affects your quarterback and how your quarterback plays when the receiver plays one day or two days a week."
Jackson has produced on game days even after missing all or part of the practice week to rest injuries. The Seahawks traded him to San Francisco for a fourth-round pick that became Georgia Tech offensive lineman Mansfield Wrotto. Jackson has been Seattle's most productive receiver since the team made him a third-round pick in 2000. But toe and knee issues have plagued the former Florida star since early in the 2005 season. Seattle went 9-0 during the nine-game stretch Jackson missed with a knee injury that season.
"If you think back to two years ago when we went to the Super Bowl, he did not play very much that year and our receiving corps did very well," Haskell said. "This last year, the receiving corps as a group wasn't quite as good, but our team wasn't quite as good.
"We didn't give the quarterback enough time to throw, so that throws us off, and so it was a little bit different."
Jackson was leading the NFL in touchdown receptions through 13 games last season. The team was 1-2 without him an 8-6 in games he played. Haskell and the offensive staff are excited about what D.J. Hackett might bring to the offense in a starting role.
"All I see is him making plays when he is on the field," Haskell said. "As the games have been going along, the more time he plays, the more balls are thrown to him, and he makes tough catches for us, he makes crucial catches for us, so there is a good upside right now.
"He has not peaked out at all. He is just beginning."
Some will miss Jackson more than others. "I'll probably miss D-Jack the most because we came in together and we kind of brought swagger to this place," said Shaun Alexander, the team's first-round pick in 2000. "D-Jack had a great college (program) at Florida. Me coming from Alabama, we were in championship games every year.
"And to come here, we were like, 'OK, Seattle?' I was like, 'Did they win here? And 'Jack' does like he normally does, 'Well, they going to start now.'
"So for us to be together, to help build this thing to where we are, knowing that we got a shot at being the only team to ever win their division four years in a row, going back to the Super Bowl. It feels odd to me.
"Now, as a team, I think we're in good shape. We are going to be able to give Deion (Branch) the rock a lot. We get to see Marcus (Pollard) kind of float around and see how open he can get because he runs great routes and he blocks.
"It's going to be different but I think it's going to be good."
--Josh Brown has no problem being the Seahawks' franchise player. Sure, he'd like a long-term deal, but the $2 million franchise tender is good money for a kicker, or anyone. "Where else am I going to go at the age of 28 and somebody is going to guarantee me $2 million?" Brown asked. "Nowhere." Brown is coming off his finest season. His four game-winning kicks made headlines, but 12 touchbacks showed overall improvement. That figure matched his career total for three previous seasons. "I changed my leg speed to the ball," Brown said. "I felt in previous years I was getting under the ball and kicking it up. So, I just swing earlier, putting my leg in front of me. I don't have the 4-second-plus hang times but we're 3.8s and we're close and we're getting 8-10 more yards."
--Patrick Kerney, Julian Peterson and Deon Grant give the defense a new look and feel from the one Seattle fielded as recently as two seasons ago. "We have a great presence out there," middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. "Talking, communicating, they have brought a lot to the defense already. We are a lot further than we were last year at this point."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm going to see who wants it the most." -- Coach Mike Holmgren after indicating that no jobs are safe on the right side of the offensive line.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Seahawks came to appreciate what Joe Jurevicius gave them in the red zone two years ago. They could use another big receiver to fill his shoes, but the organization is not showing interest in veteran free agent Keyshawn Johnson. Coaches would like to develop 6-foot-4 rookie Jordan Kent into a contributor, but that process would probably take a couple of seasons. Kent was a multisport start at Oregon who is still learning how to play football. But offensive coordinator Gil Haskell is high on him. "My favorite pick in the draft was Jordan Kent, because he is different," Haskell said of the sixth-round choice. "He is 6-4, he is very fast. Now, he has not played football very much. This is why you take a guy down there.
"I think he has a huge upside. When you look at the film, there are not as many plays of him as there is the other guys, but when you look at the film, he catches it and then he is playing fast right away."
One doesn't have to look hard to see changes for the better as the Cardinals prepare for their first season under coach Ken Whisenhunt. Gabe Watson showed up for mini-camp 35 pounds lighter. Maybe, just maybe, the talented second-year nose tackle from Michigan is ready to also shed his reputation as a laggard. Even Edgerrin James, noted for his off-season absences, was on hand as veteran attendance hit 100 percent for voluntary organized team workouts two days after the min-camp ended. Already competition appears to be building in the offensive line, and the players don't even have pads on.
"We've got some good players but another thing I'm excited about is that we do have some depth," Whisenhunt said. "We'll have some competition, so hopefully that makes us better."
"We are going in the right direction. Everybody is excited, because it is something new," said defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. "When you lose two or three years in a row, everybody is waiting for a new attitude."
No one ever doubted Watson's talent or ability. His reputation as an underachiever sandbagged him in he 2006 draft (he slid to the fourth round) and continued to thwart him during the season when the previous coaching staff viewed him as too heavy and out of shape. He saw little time, even when starter Kendrick Clancy was injured. "I'm almost 35 pounds lighter, so that makes a huge difference," said Watson, who is a strong challenger to Clancy to anchor the middle of the defensive line. "I also pretty much know the playbook so I can work on my quickness and technique now, and not have to worry as much about the plays."
On the other side of the line, Deuce Lutui, a second-round pick in 2006, is the only player currently still starting in the same position in which he ended 2006. He started the final nine games at right guard. "Having a year under my belt and being able to get my feet wet has paid off," Lutui said, who started the final nine games of last season. "Certainly, the pressures of the draft and being the new guy are all behind. Right now I'm able to focus on my assignments and positions much more than I was able to do last year."
Also running with the first offensive line through mini-camp and Organized Team Activities are free-agent pickup Mike Gandy at left tackle, veteran Reggie Wells at left guard, free agent pickup Al Johnson at center and veteran Oliver Ross at right tackle. First-round draft pick Levi Brown has worked primarily at right tackle but he played on the left side in college and no doubt will challenge Gandy or Ross for a first-team position during training camp.
The three-way battle for the two tackle spots already is shaping up as the battle of training camp. "I think they're all up for grabs," Whisenhunt said. "Certainly you're going to pay respect to a guy like Reggie Wells who has played good for you. Deuce Lutui came in and played good, so I think you factor those kinds of things in, if you've seen their performance on the field and know what kind of players they are.
"But I'm a big believer in fair competition and if someone plays better, then they are going to get their shot." The overall strength and conditioning of the team also appears to have improved as it worked through triple-digit heat at minicamp and continues for the next couple of weeks in Organized Team Activities. The players have praised new Cardinals strength and conditioning coach John Lott and the new weight room that the team built during the winter.
"It is a dramatic change," said quarterback Matt Leinart. "I feel a lot stronger than I did last year. I think all of the guys are. It is like night and day."
Whisenhunt sees it, too.
"There have been 50 or so guys in here working out the last couple of weeks," added Whisenhunt on participation in the off-season workout program. "I think a good test was yesterday, we ran gassers after practice, in the heat, at the end of a two-a-day and everybody made their times. "One of the things that I feel is really important is establishing that practice ethic, and we've done that. What we're really working on is making sure we're practicing hard. We realize there are going to be mistakes and those are the things you work on and correct."
--Former Cardinals CB Roger Wehrli, who is to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, was a special guest last week during workouts. The visit was part of what coach Ken Whisenhunt hopes begins a new annual tradition of taking the team's rookies to dinner with coaches, noted Cardinals veterans and alums. "It was really great, just to be out here and meet the rookies and the coaches, the new staff and everything," Wehrli said. "I'm really excited about this coming year here in Arizona.
"Being in St. Louis, we are kind of the homeless alumni of the NFL, so it's nice to come out and feel that connection and be a part of the group." Regarding his election to the Hall of Fame during Super Bowl weekend, the seven-time Pro Bowler and member of the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1970s said, "It was just a thrill beyond belief. I really thought it had probably passed me by because I had been out of the game for so long. The Cardinals, I know, did a lot to remind people of some of the guys that had been out of the game for a while. It was just a thrill of a lifetime to be included in that group."
--Before taking what the Cardinals hope are many visits to the end zone, 2006 Pro Bowl WR Larry Fitzgerald took trips overseas to visit troops stationed around Europe. "I went to Belgium, Holland, France and Germany," Fitzgerald said. "I visited different bases overseas for the armed services, visited hospitals and just spent time meeting some of the troops.
"This is my third year doing it and it is just a great experience. It is nice to let all of them know that their work to protect our freedom does not go unnoticed and that we appreciate them."
--Coach Ken Whisenhunt is a no-nonsense guy who wants to build the team around tough, physical lines. He wants a solid running game. He's big on basic, fundamental football. But don't lock him in as some sort of modern-era Woody Hayes. Whisenhunt's not above running some gadgets once he has the running game established, and he showed during a voluntary workout that he's not above having some fun with the players on the practice field. After a workout, which ended -- as always -- with gassers, even in 100-degree heat, Whisenhunt conducted a punt-catching competition -- among linemen. Five from each side of the ball took their turns. Suddenly-slim NT Gabe Watson made a catch to win the competition for the defensive line. Their reward: One less gasser.
"It was time for that," Whisenhunt said. "They've been working hard and I thought that an opportunity to have a little fun with a little incentive. One less run for the team that won, so that was good.
"To have Big Gabe catch that last one to put the defense out on top was pretty impressive. At heart they're very competitive guys, and that's something a little more fun that can build the team chemistry a little bit because we're bonding out there. It was the right time and it was good."
--T Levi Brown, the team's first-round draft pick, is adjusting to playing the right side. He was on the left at Penn State. "The stance felt a little weird, so it is going to take some getting used to," said Brown. "You have to get in the right-handed stance and I have to kick back with my right foot instead of my left now. I'm so used to kicking back with my left, but I'll get used to it -- or they'll move me to the left. It will be one or the other."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't want to be overly enthusiastic about them being in condition now, because what really matters is their condition when we get to training camp, but I'm very pleased with their effort in the conditioning program and where they are right now." -- Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Cardinals defense is working almost exclusively from a 3-4 look during off-season workouts, but coach Ken Whisenhunt says the 4-3 remains the base defense. He acknowledges that the team will frequently switch looks in an attempt to confuse. "I hope you have a hard time telling what we're in," Whisenhunt said. "We have 4-3 personnel, but we are going to play elements of the 3-4 with it, or try to. And once again, we haven't done anything with pads yet, so that can change."
ST. LOUIS RAMS
The biggest area of intrigue for the Rams as training camp looms is the interior of the defensive line. The Rams received sub-par play from nose tackle Jimmy Kennedy last season, while three-technique tackle La'Roi Glover was forced to be on the field for too many snaps. "We'd like to see him have less snaps, but not less production," coach Scott Linehan said.
The selection of Adam Carriker in the first round will increase the competition, along with the additions of Clifton Ryan in the fifth round and Keith Jackson in the seventh. As the team concluded its second week of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), Carriker was seeing time at both tackle spots, while second-year defensive tackle Claude Wroten also worked some at defensive end.
The club is still searching for a fourth end in the rotation that currently includes Leonard Little, James Hall and Victor Adeyanju. Wroten was forced to spend time at end last season because of injuries.
Linehan has been pleased with off-season of work from Wroten, who was a third-round pick last year.
"He and Glover are basically going to be playing the three-technique spot, and we want no fall-off when Claude goes in," Linehan said. "He had an excellent off-season, as far as his training and preparation. He understands a lot more what we're trying to get done. And he's had an excellent six (OTA) practices." Kennedy played nose tackle last season for the first time following the departure of Ryan Pickett in free agency. Kennedy had his moments, but was inconsistent with his technique, leading to breakdowns in run defense.
Said Linehan, "He's still penciled in as the starting nose tackle, but it's going to be interesting to see what happens between now and the Carolina game (season opener). He has to perform at a high level to be in the ball game."
Linehan was effusive in his praise of Carriker, who played mostly defensive end in college. "He's made a lot of great impressions on myself, the coaching staff and the rest of the team," Linehan said. "He has a natural feel for playing inside."
Noting that Carriker will surely be on the field in some capacity by the start of the season, Linehan added, "Right now, he's handling both tackle positions with relative ease." As for that fourth end and where Wroten fits, Linehan said, "We're finding out what we have. It's a good situation and an opportunity for Claude."
--His exposure to the NFL did not last long for quarterback Drew Tate. An undrafted free agent, Tate spent the team's rookie minicamp breaking in a new pair of shoes, while taking virtually all of the snaps during two days of work because he was the only quarterback. The arrival of veterans Marc Bulger, Gus Frerotte and Ryan Fitzpatrick left him doing little during OTAs, and the week culminated with his departure when the Rams signed Brock Berlin to be the fourth quarterback on the roster.
"They told me I was the only one here for the first four practices," Tate said during the rookie camp. "I figured it was going to be a lot, I just didn't know it would be this much." Now, he will be looking for somewhere else to throw.
--QB Brock Berlin, the latest addition to the Rams' roster, had been cut recently by the Cowboys. Berlin began his career, after playing at the University of Miami, with the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in 2005. After being released by the Dolphins, he was re-signed in January, 2006, and allocated to NFL Europe. Once again, he was cut in training camp. The Cowboys signed him just before the draft, then released him May 11.
--CB Jerametrius Butler has been a no-show for the team's entire off-season program and first two weeks of OTAs. "There's been no change," coach Scott Linehan said of Butler's status. Butler has three years remaining on a six-year contract offer from the Redskins the Rams matched when he was a restricted free agent in 2004. He is scheduled to be paid $2 million this year, and the original deal included a $4 million signing bonus. That prorates to $667,000 a year. If he were released on or before June 1, he would count $2 million against this year's salary cap. After June 1, he would count $667,000 this year, and $1.333 million in 2008.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's rough, man; I'm not accustomed to this. But I'm trying to be smart about it. I hated sitting and watching, so my goal this year is to get stronger each game and finish out the year." -- LB Pisa Tinoisamoa on doing limited work in the team's OTAs.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
MEDICAL WATCH: KR Dante Hall suffered a minor hamstring injury during OTA work May 15 and did not practice for the rest of the week. ... SS Corey Chavous suffered a bruised knee May 16, and was not on the field the next day. ... Rookie nose tackle Clifton Ryan was kicked in the calf during rookie minicamp and missed two practices on the second day. He was able to participate in OTA work
... LB Pisa Tinoisamoa, recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, has been participating in some drills during OTA practices, but not "team" work.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Mike Nolan liked what he saw from nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin when Nolan was the defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens. Three years later, both men are now in San Francisco and Nolan is even more impressed. "He has obviously matured," Nolan said at the team's recent minicamp. "He's better than when I left him, no question, because he was only a second-year player."
The 49ers' metamorphosis to a 3-4 defense will depend a lot on how Franklin, one of the team's four defensive free-agent acquisitions in March, performs this year. The team has tinkered with a 3-4 scheme in Nolan's first two seasons as head coach but didn't have the right personnel to make it stick. The biggest missing piece was at nose tackle where Anthony Adams, Isaac Sopoaga and Ronald Fields all failed to make a good impression.
Adams' contract was not renewed this March and he signed instead with the Chicago Bears. Fields is currently competing at defensive end and the powerful Sopoaga is honing his technique while working as a backup behind Franklin. The 320-pound Franklin is a relative unknown in the league, having started only once in four seasons. Nolan, however, said the newcomer's lack of playing time is attributed to the fact that he played behind Kelly Gregg in Baltimore. Gregg has started all but three games since the Ravens drafted Franklin in 2003, and he has had 60 or more tackles in each of those four seasons.
"I really learned everything from him," Franklin said of Gregg. "He worked with me and spent the extra time. Most vets wouldn't do that with a rookie." Now Franklin is trying to take on a similar role with the 49ers -- both on the field and in the locker room. He said he wanted to play in San Francisco -- Miami and Philadelphia also showed interest during free agency -- because the 49ers' defensive system is so similar to the Ravens'. That familiarity allowed him to be a coach in the locker room during minicamp.
"Anytime they have any questions, I try to help the young guys," he said. "I want to give back the same ways those guys gave to me."
--The 49ers were able to draft talented Florida defensive lineman Ray McDonald late in the third round because of concerns about the status of McDonald's right knee. "I don't want to talk bad about anybody, but I feel I'm better than a lot of the guys taken ahead of me," McDonald said. "I'll be playing with a chip on my shoulder." McDonald said there is still a possibility he could have surgery and miss the 2007 season. McDonald twice had surgery on the knee in 2005, but he noted that he played in all 14 games in 2006 for the national champion Gators and expects the joint will hold up this year as well.
--All of the 49ers' nine draft picks will be on hand when the team assembles on June 4 for the start of organized team activities or OTAs. The only rookie who won't be able to participate right away is undrafted defensive end Darius Sanders, who will join the team after the final quarter ends at the University of Oregon.
--Already loaded at wide receiver, the 49ers will add even more depth at the position when Marcus Maxwell returns from NFL Europa. Maxwell caught five passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns last week for the Hamburg Sea Devils. After five games, Maxwell is second on the team with 217 receiving yards and leads Hamburg with three touchdown receptions.
--Alex Smith will be one of five quarterbacks taking part in Saturday's 2007 DirecTV NFL Quarterback Challenge from the Cayman Islands. Smith will compete against the Redskins' Jason Campbell, the Vikings' Tarvaris Jackson, the Lions' Jon Kitna and the Jaguars' Byron Leftwich in four challenges: accuracy, speed and mobility, long distance throwing and no-huddle offense. The show will be telecast on ESPN and on NFL Network in August.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We do expect our wide receivers to block as well. That is a big part of Frank's running. On those long runs Frank had, a lot of them came from wide receiver blocking. Our wide receivers take a lot of pride in making downfield blocks for Frank. He is a guy that they do love to block for." -- Coach Mike Nolan on how a stout receiving corps will affect running back Frank Gore.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The 49ers this week added rookie free agent Jake Patten of Virginia Tech to their growing group of safeties. The defensive backfield has been a problem area under Mike Nolan with the 49ers finishing last in the league in points allowed last season. The group, however, showed improvement at the end of 2006 when Keith Lewis teamed with Mark Roman at safety. Roman and free-agent addition Michael Lewis were the starters at the team's recent minicamp with Keith Lewis entering the game in passing situations. Rookie Dashon Goldson, a fourth-round pick out of Washington, also looked good in the team's recent minicamp. Goldson mostly played cornerback for the Huskies last season but has the size -- 6-2, 202 pounds -- to play safety in the NFL.