The Seahawks couldn't depend on Jerramy Stevens to stay sober. They loved his potential but grew tired of the dropped passes, average blocking and overall inconsistency. They always had to wonder when his next off-field incident might crop up, not what coach Mike Holmgren had in mind when he drafted the enigmatic tight end with a first-round choice in 2002.
Seattle's solution was simple. The team planned to let Stevens depart in free agency, or bring him back at a minimum salary. Daniel Graham, a player the Seahawks could have drafted in 2002, was going to solve the Seahawks' problems at the position. That was the plan, anyway, at least until Graham took a blockbuster deal from Denver to play in his hometown.
Marcus Pollard became Plan B. The former starter in Detroit and Indianapolis is 35 years old and coming off an unproductive season. He has avoided injury problems and didn't even play college ball, giving him fewer miles than most veterans his age.
But 35 is 35, right?
"He has played 10 years, I know that, but he did not play in college, and what that meant was that he wasn't beat up," Seattle offensive coordinator Gil Haskell said. "We do a physical and 'five' is when you are in really good shape, and he is a five after 10 years. He doesn't have a knee, he doesn't have a shoulder, he doesn't have this, he doesn't have that.
"He didn't get the heck kicked out of him for four years and then go to the pros, so that is a plus for us, and I think he is a very gifted receiver." Haskell and the Seahawks need Pollard to solve their problem at tight end on a one-year basis. Stevens signed with Tampa Bay after blowing a .204 on a breath test in Arizona. Former Seattle starter Itula Mili is finished physically and headed for retirement.
Will Heller becomes the top backup at the position. Fellow tight ends Leonard Stephens and Bennie Joppru are unproven. The Seahawks view Pollard, a former college basketball player, as a guy who simply didn't fit into what Mike Martz was doing offensively in Detroit. Pollard was productive in his first season with the Lions, when Steve Mariucci was running his version of the West Coast offense. He became expendable with Martz running things.
"When you watch Detroit or when you watch the Rams when (Martz) was there, their tight ends were 260 or 270 pounds, and their fullbacks were former tight ends," Haskell said. "Those two guys became blockers, so the three receivers could run down the field.
"Marcus was not that kind of a guy for Detroit when Mike got there. Marcus is a receiver that is very gifted. I know he doesn't drop footballs, which is a good thing for us. I think his blocking will be good, too, because they did block in Indianapolis when they were running the ball."
--WR Nate Burleson struggled some during his first season with the Seahawks. A thumb injury hurt his confidence early. He caught a touchdown pass in Seattle's overtime playoff loss at Chicago, but that could not offset a disappointing individual season. "He has to step up," Seahawks president Tim Ruskell said. "He played very well in the Chicago game. I thought that was a watershed moment for him with the touchdown, and it looked like he was ready to take the next step.
"He has been great in the offseason. Two years ago, this was a guy that caught 70 balls and 1,000 yards, and we want to get him back to that level, and we think he can do that, and obviously what he gives us as a returner (helps)."
--Maryland cornerback Josh Wilson had never been to Seattle before the Seahawks drafted him in the second round. He was more interested in joining a winner than staying close to home. The Seahawks have won the last three NFC West titles.
"That is what you always want," Wilson said. "You want to be on a team that is contention every year, and I'm glad to say that I am part of a team like that. I got on the phone with Coach Holmgren, and the first thing he asked me was, 'Are you ready to win a Super Bowl? That's a great feeling to know that we are going to be in contention, and I am going to be able to help the team win."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We just had our third baby. That is the only reason." -- RB Shaun Alexander, a participant in the team's offseason conditioning program, on why he stayed in Seattle this offseason.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Seahawks have gotten smaller at cornerback since Tim Ruskell arrived as team president in early 2005. Second-round pick Josh Wilson, all 5-foot-9 of him, is the latest example. "We liked Josh Wilson because he has top-end speed," defensive coordinator John Marshall said. "The thing that we look for in a less-statured corner is that they need something that offsets the lack of height. We see a lot of big wide receivers in the league.
"The thing that (Wilson) brings is, one, he makes plays at the ball. He has the speed and awareness to be at the ball when he needs to be at the ball, and he is competitive as heck. He will fight you for every inch.
"Does that mean that every once in a while one of those 6-4 wide receivers isn't going to maybe outjump him or maybe get the ball? Well, I'll tell you what, the guy will have fought every inch of the way. That's what this guy brings."
Wilson, a former track star, can also help in the return game.
A year ago, the Cardinals could only pray that middle linebacker Gerald Hayes would come back from knee surgery and have a big year. They really had no fall-back plan. There wasn't another player with experience or even with potential to step in if Hayes had not successfully come back from knee surgery that wiped out his entire 2005 season. But he came back big, starting 14 games and giving the Cardinals the sort of "pop" in the middle that they'd lacked, a real physical presence (6-1, 250). He made 111 tackles, intercepted three passes and recovered two fumbles.
Now Hayes' role is being tweaked again. He is joined inside by Karlos Dansby as the Cardinals make greater use of 3-4 alignments.
"I just wanted to go out there and prove that I can play," Hayes said. "I wanted to show everybody that I can get out there and be that starter that they want me to be.
"For me to come off the injury, I don't know how rare that is, but I know it was a great situation for me, knowing that they were rewarding me (with a new contract). I knew they believed in me and they wanted to see me be here for a long time."
Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said that it was only the beginning for Hayes. "To have him bounce back last year and make the strides that he did in his first year as a full-time starter, we expect him to be even better this year," Pendergast said.
--T Levi Brown has yet to strap on a set of shoulder pads, but he claims to have some of the biggest names in the game on his radar, anxious to challenge them and show them what he's got. "At defensive end, Julius Peppers or Michael Strahan, one of those two, because they are considered the best," Brown said of which foes he'd like to face.
"You want to go against the best to prove to yourself. And once you go against the best, and can beat the best, people start looking at you."
--LB Karlos Dansby, who is entering the final year of his contract and is looking for an extension as he moves to ILB from OLB, has shown up in great shape. He is expected to make a smooth transition from outside to insider linebacker.
--DT Alan Branch, the team's second-round draft pick, says he is working hard to prove critics wrong who labeled him a "dog." Branch, regarded as one of the top down linemen in this draft, also was castigated for his perceived dogging it while in college at Michigan. "I laugh about it now," Branch said. "Most of the guys who say stuff like that are just fantasy football fans that have never been on the field. They've never really smelled the grass. Anyone who has seen me knows how hard I work."
New Cardinals defensive line coach Ron Aiken, who was at Iowa for eight years -- and consequently was across the field from Branch, said the critics are wrong. "Most teams in college double-teamed him, and Alan did a great job as far as plugging up the middle," Aiken said. "The key thing is, when you watch him on tape in college, he stayed on the field about 85 percent of the time. There's not a lot of big guys that stay in the ballgame for a large majority of reps.
"That, right there, generated our interest."
--G Elton Brown, a starter his 2005 rookie year who didn't play a down in 2006, also is among the former too-heavy linemen on both sides of the ball who has reduced his weight considerably. He's at 340, down 40 pounds from last summer. He said he'd like to knock off another 10 or so before training camp. Cardinals' guards are expected to be nimble, so dropping weight is his only chance to stay on the roster. "In the off-season this year, I took it real serious," he said. "New coaching staff, new beginning. I got my chance again."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's been real nice to have another guy from Penn State. He has been here for a couple years now and he showing me the ropes, showing me around the town a little bit, and really took me under his wing. He's letting me stay with him right now until I find a place to stay and he lets me drive his car every now and then, so he's been like a big brother for me." -- T Levi Brown, the Cardinals 2007 first-round daft pick, on WR Bryant Johnson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast expects Karlos Dansby to flourish in his move to ILB in the 3-4 from OLB in the 4-3 because the move caters to Dansby's ability to run and hit.
--RB Edgerrin James is expected back for voluntary work Tuesday from a few days off.
MEDICAL WATCH: WR Bryant Johnson (hamstring strain) didn't practice in voluntary workouts last week. It is unknown if he will be ready for the next voluntary workout on Tuesday (May 29). ... TE Ben Patrick (hamstring), the seventh-round draft pick, is frustrated by having to miss time, knowing his is a position where there is little experience or depth and that he has an excellent opportunity to play. "I've been paying attention and the other tight ends have been helping me out a lot, as far as staying up to speed," Patrick said.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
He cuts an imposing figure at the team's off-season practice sessions. There's a big No. 76 wearing a red jersey, and doing little while his linemates work to prepare for the start of training camp at the end of July. Most important, though, is that left tackle Orlando Pace is present and accounted for, as he recovers from a torn triceps muscle that ended his 2006 season on Nov. 12 against Seattle.
"These workouts are really important. Even though they're voluntary, you get a sense of togetherness," Pace told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "And the quicker you can build your team with the new guys that are here, the better your team will be once the season starts. ... We've become a close group, and that can only help us during the season."
That doesn't mean Pace isn't getting a bit antsy.
He said, "Some days you want to jump out there and get in the mix. But I don't want to start hitting people and get banged up. ... You've just got to be patient and let the muscle heal. The most important part is to be ready for the season.
"This is kind of uncharted territory for me, and it's difficult. They just told me to be patient, be smart about it." In previous years, the only time he missed off-season work was when he was the franchise player for two years and didn't sign and report until just before the season started. Now, after missing significant time last year for the first time in his career, Pace professes to being "hungrier" to get on the field again.
He's happy with his rehab, explaining that the injury was "pretty serious" and adding, "I do so much hitting and punching with the arms. But it's coming along good." Of course, he doesn't want to experience another season like 2006.
"That's probably the first time in my life somebody's telling you you're not well enough to play football. It was just hard going to the games and watching ... really rough." What was positive was watching the team win their final three games, and seeing younger players like guards Mark Setterstrom and Richie Incognito and center Brett Romberg do well.
Pace said, "The most exciting part about having those young guys step up like that is that it builds depth on our offensive line. The coaches trust those guys because they have game experience. ... They have confidence in those guys now." Meanwhile, coach Scott Linehan can't wait to have Pace back on the field.
"I thought our team responded well at the loss of Orlando last year. But you can't replace the guy; he's a Hall of Fame offensive tackle one day, one of the best the game's ever seen," Linehan said. "Having him back is a big shot in the arm for us."
--RB John David Washington, who did not see the field in the first six games of the NFL Europa season with Hamburg, was reassigned this past week to Rhein. Washington was fourth on Hamburg's depth chart and on the practice squad, while Rhein lost starting running back Taurean Henderson to injury, leaving only Michael Franklin, who is also the Fire's kickoff and punt returner. The son of actor Denzel Washington, John David Washington spent the 2006 season on the Rams' practice squad and was allocated to NFL Europa this off-season after signing a free-agent contract with the Rams. As the No. 2 runner with Rhein, Washington is expected to see some playing time for the first time this season.
--Originally, it was believed the Rams had no interest in defensive tackle Sam Adams, who was released recently by the Cincinnati Bengals. However, Adams visited the team facility May 24, so club officials could check out his knee and find out what kind of shape he is in. Adams had knee surgery in the off-season. The Rams are still looking for added size on the inside of their defensive line.
--Rookie DT Clifton Ryan, a fifth-round pick, did not participate May 24 in the team's final OTA of the week. Ryan was bothered by a calf injury during the rookie minicamp the weekend of May 12-13.
Coach Scott Linehan said it was his decision to keep Ryan off the field. "He's played through it, so that's been good that you can find out a how tough a guy is," Linehan said. "We learned he's a pretty tough kid." The Rams won't have any OTAs next week, thus Ryan will have 12 days off until the team hits the field again on June 5.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
MEDICAL WATCH: WR Torry Holt, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in February, participated in his first OTA workout Thursday (May 24). ... WR/KR Dante Hall, who missed two workouts because of a minor hamstring injury was back on the practice field this week at OTAs (Organized Team Activities). ... S Corey Chavous was back on the field this week after missing time with a bruised knee.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Manny Lawson was a first-round selection of the 49ers a year ago primarily because of the pass-rush skills he showed while amassing 17.5 sacks during his final two seasons at North Carolina State. But Lawson proved his worth in other areas for the 49ers, as he made the transition from a defensive end in college to an outside linebacker. The 49ers picked him at No. 22 overall with the thinking that he would be a perfect fit for the team's conversion to a 3-4 defense.
But the 49ers did not have the kind of bulky, space-eating defensive linemen to enable them to play a 3-4 as their base defense. Therefore, Lawson had to throw away his skill set and learn how to be a true outside linebacker. "The way I looked at it, last year was a learning year for me," he said. "I wasn't getting to rush as much, but I learned to drop; I learned how I fit in runs. Rushing is going to come later down the line. Patience is a virtue."
As the 49ers make the shift this season to a 3-4 defense this season, Lawson is excited for what the future holds for him. It means that he will be asked to supply a pass rush this season after recording just 2.5 sacks as a rookie. "It's very exciting, going from primarily a coverage guy last year to doing what I thoroughly enjoy doing -- getting after the passer," Lawson said.
Lawson has tremendous speed, but early in the season he didn't always show his agility because he admits to thinking too much. He said, "I like to know exactly what's going on around me -- what my teammates are doing; my job and their job; and how much I can help here and how much less I can help there; where I need to go; and how fast I need to get there -- so I can play my game and play fast."
The 49ers are expecting Lawson to show his skills as a speed rusher. The 49ers signed free-agent outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain to supply a pass rush from the other side. "Bringing in Tully, another 3-4 linebacker, that's what the 49ers expect from us," Lawson said. "Having both of us rush the passer, from either side, you don't know what's coming at you."
--The 49ers are not actively shopping offensive linemen Justin Smiley and Kwame Harris in trade talks, but teams around the league know that both players are available for the right price.
Smiley and Harris are in the final years of their contracts, and it appears neither is likely to sign a contract extension. Still, coach Mike Nolan said he wants both players on the team this season, even if their long-term futures are unsettled. "It's my intention that they're here," Nolan said. "They're going to make us better. They're good football players. Somebody's got to beat them out. If somebody wants it, they're going to have to take it, but I'm not going to hand them a job."
--The 49ers are starting the process of signing their draft picks early. Last year, the 49ers did not sign their first draft picks until the middle of June. Last week, the 49ers signed fourth-round picks Jay Moore and Joe Cohen to four-year contracts. The 49ers had nine draft picks. The 49ers' rookie salary cap pool is $5.42 million.
--Receiver Marcus Maxwell, a seventh-round selection of the 49ers in '05, has yet to catch a pass in a regular-season game, though he did appear in four games as a rookie. However, he is having success in NFL Europa with the Hamburg Sea Devils. Maxwell has 16 catches for 283 yards and a league-high five touchdowns in six games. "It felt good to come out here and make an impact because I haven't been productive in a long time," Maxwell told 49ers.com.
--The 49ers have implemented the drug prevention and health promotion programs ATLAS and ATHENA in five Bay Area high schools. Through a partnership with the Center for Health Promotion Research at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and the NFL Youth Football Fund (YFF), student athletes and coaches from the five "49ers Schools" will be trained on ATLAS and ATHENA as part of a pilot program funded by the NFL Youth Football Fund.
ATLAS (Athletes Training & Learning to Avoid Steroids) designed for male athletes and ATHENA (Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise & Nutrition Alternatives) designed for female athletes, are multi-component programs that provide healthy sports nutrition and strength-training as alternatives to use of alcohol, illicit and performance-enhancing drugs. ATHENA also addresses the connection between young women in sports, disordered eating behaviors and body-shaping drug use.
The 49ers are one of eight teams selected by the NFL to sponsor five schools within their territory in an effort to educate a total of 20,000 high school athletes and 800 high school coaches. Grants awarded to OHSU and the individual teams from the YFF will provide training and facilitate the implementation of the programs as well as stipends for school staff.
"The NFL has a strict policy on performance enhancing drug use," said 49ers coach Mike Nolan. "The ATLAS and ATHENA programs will educate high school students on the dangers of this issue. These peer-led programs should have a tremendous impact on these students both now and in the future and I'm proud that the 49ers support such an important and hot topic."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When I looked at the stats sheet, I didn't see a whole lot of sacks. There were some, but it wasn't top of the league. Hopefully this year, we'll challenge the rest of the league." -- 49ers outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who left the Patriots to sign with the 49ers to help upgrade the team's ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The 49ers kept five wide receivers last season, but with better depth they could carry as many as six wideouts on their roster this season. The club added Darrell Jackson via a trade with the Seahawks and he would appear to be the likely candidate to be the team's top target. Ashley Lelie was signed as a free agent, and Jason Hill was a third-round draft pick. Those three players would appear to have roster spots nearly assured, along with reliable Arnaz Battle, who caught a career-high 59 passes for 686 yards and three touchdowns. Brandon Williams, Bryan Gilmore, Taylor Jacobs and Maxwell are among the others competing for roster spots.