Yes, they're teammates, but that doesn't mean they don't go after each other hard during practices. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, for instance, sees an improved defense as a tougher challenge for the offense.
"They are definitely playing well," Hasselbeck said during the recent minicamp. "They are fast and they are communicating. Like us, they're making mistakes from time to time, but they are also making some big plays. It gets very competitive with our offense and our defense. Sometimes we go at it a little bit, we frustrate each other. I think in the end us competing against them, them competing against us is going to help them improve. I know it is going to help us improve."
--Running back Shaun Alexander stayed in Seattle and took part in the team's offseason conditioning program ... a rarity for him. "I'm a lot stronger right now. I feel stronger, but my weight is exactly the same," Alexander said. Alexander is looking to return to league MVP form after missing six games last season with a broken foot. He was amused how erroneous reports from minicamp caused fans to believe that his foot was still troubling him.
"Some people were pulling me over on the side, 'Should I pick you (for fantasy football)?'" Alexander said. "But I am good to go and this is going to be a great year for our whole team."
--Having no team obligations until the start of training camp doesn't mean everybody can get away from football. At least according to Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
"The coaches take off; it's really the only vacation they get the entire year," Hasselbeck said. "For the players, this is kind of the time where we aren't here for mandatory workouts, but this is the time where we really have to hone in and get into shape and get ready for training camp. In a lot of ways training camp is a lot of tougher than actually playing in the season so we have some work to do."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The silver lining for us is that Darrell didn't practice a lot when he was here. We are used to practicing without him." -- Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck on what minicamp was like without receiver Darrell Jackson, who was traded to San Francisco.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
A player who continues to intrigue with his potential is running back Leonard Weaver. After making the team as an undrafted free agent tight end out of Carson-Newman in 2005, Weaver missed the entire 2006 season with an ankle injury. He's back at full speed now, and made a number of nice catches during minicamp practices. At 6-0, 250 pounds, Weaver could be the eventual replacement for veteran fullback Mack Strong.
Weaver is a more elusive runner, with better hands, but he won't take over Strong's spot until the staff is convinced he can be an effective blocker for Shaun Alexander.
"Leonard is such an amazing athlete that everybody forgot that he played at a small school and he played tight end," Alexander said. "I think this is a year where we will get to see him do a lot of stuff and help our offense out tremendously. I think he is going to do some really good things for us."
Justin Wyatt continues to seek his 15 minutes of fame in pro football and perhaps he has found a launching point in NFL Europa's World Bowl XV as a cornerback for Hamburg. The Sea Devils face Frankfurt for the league title. Wyatt has played in all 10 games with three starts, recording 30 tackles, one interception for 25 yards, one sack, one forced fumble, four pass defenses and three special teams tackles. Wyatt had more than his 15 minutes of fame in college at Southern California, winning a couple of national titles as a teammate of Cardinals starting quarterback Matt Leinart and starting right guard Deuce Lutui. Wyatt was a starting corner for the Trojans and was expected to be among those drafted in 2006. Surprisingly, he went undrafted, then signed as a rookie free agent with Arizona and spent the 2006 season on the practice squad.
Cornerback is among the Cardinals weakest positions. Starter Antrel Rolle, a 2005 first-round pick, has two interceptions in 21 games. Eric Green, a 2005 third-round pick, has one interception in 27 games as a part-time starter. The Cardinals signed veteran free agent Roderick Hood during the winter and he's expected to play opposite Rolle. But for depth, there is Ralph Brown, who goes into his seventh year more known for special teams work; Matt Ware, who appeared in 14 games for the Cardinals in 2006 and did nothing special; Darrell Hunter, a veteran of three games with little to show for it, and undrafted rookies Michael Adams of Louisiana-Lafayette and Travarous Bain of Hampton. Wyatt could use the stage of the World Bowl as a launching point to a spot on a team just waiting for a cornerback to step forward.
Everyone knew that Steve Breaston was fast, and he proved it by being the second Cardinals drafted rookie to sign a contract. Speed and Cardinals negotiations historically have not gone hand-in-hand. Breaston is a burner who is nearly unstoppable when he gets into the open field. Now the blur from Michigan, who is expected to be the man to beat for kick and punt return duty, takes his 4.41-second 40-yard dash speed onto the field. Breaston signed for three years. Terms were not disclosed.
"It is exciting to see my name and number up there in one of the lockers," Breaston said. "But it is a job also; once I got on the practice field I knew it was time to work.
"I think it sunk in the first day I got here. We were out here right away working hard, and I was excited just to get out there. I was so excited to get out there that I had a couple of mess ups but everything has sunk in now. I am relaxed and I feel a part of the team."
--With afternoon temperatures hovering around 110 degrees in Phoenix, Cardinals third-round pick Buster Davis took part in the Salvation Army's 1st Annual Bottled Water Drive on Thursday, June 21.
The Salvation Army is collecting bottled water for its summer-long hydration project for homeless people amid the sizzling urban desert. The Salvation Army, in conjunction with the Phoenix Police Department and Park Rangers, handed out bottled water as well as respite and safety information to those people who are potentially in distress.
--The Cardinals open the season vs. San Francisco on Monday Night Football, and they certainly won't need to be miked -- ESPN will have three Mikes in the broadcast booth. Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, hosts of ESPN Radio's popular Mike & Mike in the Morning, and ESPN analyst and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka. For years, Golic had a sports talk show on a Phoenix radio station before he joined ESPN.
--T Oliver Ross is expected to be engaged in one of the most interesting battles of training camp as he battles veteran free-agent pickup Mike Gandy and first-round draft pick Levi Brown for a starting tackle job. The three are being cross-trained on both sides and coaches likely won't settle on where to keep the players until they've seen them in pads in training camp. Ross has played primarily on the right side during his two injury-slowed seasons with the team and he concluded organized team activities first on the depth chart at RT. Gandy was running first at LT. But the Cardinals are expected to invest heavily in Brown and he is unlikely to sit.
Whether Brown, who worked primarily behind Ross on the right side, moves up there, or whether Brown moves to first-team on the left side where he starred in college and Gandy then moves to the right, it is going to be tough for Ross to stay in the lineup. Ross, however, has an added advantage in having played for new Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and new line coach Russ Grimm in Pittsburgh before Ross came to Arizona in 2005 as a free agent.
"So far he's been good," Grimm said. "He has a little bit of a jump because he's been through this offense three years ago. So he's a little bit familiar with it, knows some of the wrinkles. He's right on pace."
Ross agreed, adding, "I'm picking up things much faster because I really don't have to think about it. A lot of people might say there's more pressure, but there's only pressure if you put it on yourself. If you just go out and do your job, you'll do just fine."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was tough. I was hurt here the first two years more than I had ever been." -- Cardinals RT Oliver Ross, who missed nine games the past two years due to an assortment of nagging injuries.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Cardinals moved to about $7 million under the salary cap after T Oliver Ross, battling veteran Mike Gandy and first-round draft pick Levi Brown for a starting job, agreed to a $1 million pay cut.
Ross will make $1.8 million for the upcoming season. It's a hedge by the Cardinals to avoid paying Ross starter's pay in case he does not retain a starting job. Ross however can earn back that money through incentives for performance and playing time. Ross finished organized team workouts running with the first offense at RT, but rookie Levi Brown is expected to make a strong push when Brown gets to training camp in pads. When Ross came to Arizona two years ago as a free agent from Pittsburgh, he signed for five years at $17.5 million, including a $3 million signing bonus and salaries of $2.8 million. The change is for 2007 only. Ross' salaries do not change in 2008 or 2009.
--PR/KR/WR Steve Breaston, the team's fifth-round draft pick (142nd overall), signed for three years. Terms were not disclosed. The North Braddock, Pa. native finished his Michigan career as Big Ten career record holder for punt returns (127) and yards (1,599). He also holds Michigan records for kickoff returns (77), yards (1,993) and punt return touchdowns (4). In 48 career games at Michigan, Breaston touched the ball 406 times collecting 5,609 all purpose yards, an average of 116.9 yards per game. He was drafted primarily to return punts and kickoffs. He has 4.41-second 40-yard dash speed and is nearly unstoppable in the open field. Breaston also will compete to be the team's fourth receiver.
--TE Ben Patrick, the team's seventh-round draft pick (215th overall), signed for three years. Terms were not disclosed. Patrick has been hobbled by a hamstring injury since the draft and did little more than watch mini camps and organized team activities. Patrick (6-foot-3, 252 pounds) led NCAA Division I-AA tight ends last fall at Delaware with 64 receptions for 639 yards and six touchdowns. He was a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Defensive lineman Adam Carriker will be one of the most-watched players when training camp opens July 27. That's assuming he has signed a contract and doesn't miss valuable time. The Rams are counting on him big-time, and defensive tackle Adam Carriker knows the pressure will be on. He lined up with the first unit at nose tackle in the team's recent minicamp. "It was a little bit surprising," Carriker said. "I still have a long way to go. There's still training camp, there's still preseason games. Right now, I have a job, and it's my job to hold onto it. I'm a little surprised, but now that I've been blessed with that, I plan to keep it."
Carriker played mostly defensive end at Nebraska, but when the Rams selected him with the 13th pick in the first round of this year's draft, plans were announced immediately to move him inside. When nose tackle Jimmy Kennedy was traded just before the minicamp, that created the obvious spot for Carriker, who increased his weight from about 296 at the combine to 313 since the draft.
He said coaches talked to him about nose tackle prior to the draft.
He said, "Two weeks before the draft they brought me in for a visit and they asked me about it. They wanted to see what I thought about it. I'm like, 'Anyway I can help the team, that's fine with me.' I'm happy. It's all fine with me."
Coach Scott Linehan has been impressed with Carriker since the first day he reported to the Rams for their rookie minicamp two weeks after the draft. Linehan said, "He's just old school. He comes to work, he doesn't say anything, and he always does his best. He does things with great effort and pride, and that's what you want any player to do, let alone a rookie. He has that right mindset. He's going to be a pretty special player."
As for the steady weight gain, Carriker said, "I've just gradually put on weight. Right after the combine, I wanted to put on a little bit of weight because I knew I was going to be a 3-4 end or an inside guy somewhere, depending on who took me.
"As soon as I found out the Rams took me and they wanted me to play nose guard, I tried to get up to 305 by the time I got here. I put on about five pounds in the last month that I've been here."
During camp, the Rams will try alignments where there won't have a true nose tackle, calling their inside players just right and left tackles. There will be times when nose tackle skills will be needed, but others when pass-rush ability is wanted. Carriker believe he's versatile enough to do both even with added weight. "I can carry it well, and I can still play fast," he Carriker. "It's not going to fatigue me and bog me down."
--DE Leonard Little, who signed a three-year contract during the 2006 regular season, said he likes the moves the team has made in the off-season. "I think the upper management and the coaching staff have made some great moves to bring some guys in that we really, really needed," Little said. "James Hall, Dante Hall, people like that can really help the team. They made some real significant moves to help the team." The subject of constant double-teams, Little especially likes the addition of James Hall, who will play right defensive end.
"There was a point last year where James was leading the NFL in sacks," Little said. "James has been double-teamed himself. It's going to be real interesting to see how teams are going to block us in pass (situations)."
--DT Tim Sandidge didn't play for the Hamburg Sea Devils in the NFL Europa championship game because of a knee injury. But leaving the team early allowed him to return to the States and do some conditioning work around Rams personnel. There is a lot of competition, but Sandidge believes playing in NFL Europa will help. He was on the Rams' practice squad last season when he was signed to the Chiefs' active roster. But just before Kansas City's first playoff game, the Chiefs needed a defensive back, and Sandidge was waived. The Rams put in a claim, and was then sent to Europe.
Sandidge said there was no tear related to his knee injury, and that his time with Hamburg was well spent. He said, "I played in about six or seven games. I felt like I went out there and did what I needed to do. I think I opened up a lot of eyes. I feel like being over there really helped me. I played a lot, got a lot of experience, and I feel like I got better."
--OT Jeremy Parquet, who was allocated by the Rams to NFL Europa, was named to the league's All-Pro team.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not worried about that. After seeing the film from last year, and I've now been in the offense for 12 or 13 practices, I've seen what goes around and the amount of offense that is there. I'm not worried about who is going to be catching the balls or how many I'm going to get." -- WR Drew Bennett, when asked if he is concerned about getting enough passes his way because of the other talent on the roster.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
As the offseason work concluded for rookies the week of June 18, three undrafted free agents were placed on waivers. The Rams released guards Stanley Daniels and David Thompson and cornerback Terrance Reaves.
That leaves the Rams with 87 players on their roster, a total that includes running back Marshall Faulk, who has still not officially retired, eight unsigned drafted players and four players with NFL Europa exemptions. Because of the exemptions, the Rams will be able to have 84 players in training camp
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
At the conclusion of the 49ers' Organized Team Activities, offensive coordinator Jim Hostler made an observation to his unit. Hostler spent the previous two seasons as quarterbacks coach. "We've gone through two years of learning in the offseason," Hostler said. "This is the first time we've had a chance to get better at what we do. And there's a huge difference there."
Quarterback Alex Smith learned two different offenses in his first two NFL seasons. He was paired with Mike McCarthy and a West Coast scheme in his first season. Last year, Smith came under the tutelage of Norv Turner's vertical passing game. Although Smith has his third offensive coordinator in three years, he will not be asked to learn a new scheme this season. In fact, the 49ers will use mostly the offense that Turner installed, while incorporating some aspects of the West Coast system.
"We didn't throw the ball down the field and we didn't stretch the defense," Smith said of McCarthy's short-passing game. "Defenses were on top of us, and playing downhill was hard. It was like we were the passive ones and they were the aggressors."
Last year, Turner implemented more seven-step drops and deeper pass routes. Although the 49ers got more big plays, they ranked among the worst in the league on third downs and in red-zone efficiency. "I think a little bit we missed the controlled-passing game, and five-step drops and things like that," Smith said. "It's nice that (Hostler) is incorporating both. And we need to be able to do both."
The 49ers' passing game has been a weak spot on the team. Running back Frank Gore led the NFC in rushing last season, while the passing game took a backseat, averaging just 167.8 yards per game. The club acquired receivers Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie, and drafted Jason Hill in the third round. Moreover, second-year tight end Vernon Davis had a strong offseason and figures to be a top target. Improved talent, coupled with the second year in the same system for Smith, should mean more production for the passing game.
"There's a definite progression in the passing game," Smith said.
--Running back Frank Gore has a new lucrative contract, but he looked like a player with something to prove during the offseason program. "Frank has always practiced hard," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "Frank is trying to stay with what he's done. Frank has always been a team guy." Nolan said Gore has a pulse on the team, and he's not shy about sharing his opinion with the coach. On occasions, he'll tell Nolan that a certain teammate is "a baller." Other times, he might not give a favorable opinion. He'll just shake his head in disgust.
--The 49ers wrapped up their offseason program and will have five weeks off before the start of training camp. The competition during practices has already been much more spirited than in recent years. "Guys are competing in a very good way -- an uplifting and encouraging way," said 49ers defensive end Bryant Young. "We were really competing. That's the type of atmosphere that makes this whole thing fun. It was positive energy."
--Nolan said the additions of Nate Clements and Tully Banta-Cain, in particular, have helped bring an added intensity to practices. "They like to talk; it's all in good spirit," Nolan said. "The offensive guys haven't been given much of that the last two years. Tully talks a little bit and so does Nate. It's kind of funny. Nate's more funny than (Banta-Cain). Nate is very innocent. He just laughs. Tully is trying to inspire everybody."
--The 49ers expect every player on the roster to be ready for the opening of training camp, including those who missed all or parts of OTAs: guard Larry Allen (personal), cornerback Shawntae Spencer (foot), receiver Darrell Jackson (toe), receiver Ashley Lelie (quadriceps), cornerback Donald Strickland (knee), tackle Kwame Harris (back), tackle Jonas Jennings (shoulder) and guard Justin Smiley (shoulder). The two exceptions are defensive lineman Melvin Oliver (knee) and cornerback B.J. Tucker (chest), both of whom sustained season-ending injuries in OTAs.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The guys we've added have higher expectations of themselves. Typically, when you add a good player, that raises the expectations of the guys around him. Then, you see a better tempo at practice. When we have talented guys practicing at a higher tempo, as opposed to average guys, it looks a lot different." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan on the team's improvements showing up on the practice field.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Coach Mike Nolan does not place a lot of emphasis on how a player looks during non-contact offseason workouts. He said he learns a lot about a player when hitting is allowed to resume during training camp. One rookie that stood out during the organized team activities is Dashon Goldson, a fourth-round pick from Washington. The reason Nolan liked what he saw is because he figured Goldson was the kind of player whose value would become apparent when hitting began. "Some of the guys you know are good football players," Nolan said. "Goldson is known to be a physical player. It's nice to see all the stuff we do in shorts, he does that well. I expect him to do the other things because he's been a good pads player."