During one early training camp session in Red Zone offense, the Seattle Seahawks were held out of the end zone on every play. Seahawk scoring dipped 8 points a game in 2006 as injuries depleted the offense in all areas. Some early struggles in training camp, though, are not seen as a signal that offensive production continues to trend downward, but more a testament to the readiness of the defense.
"(The defense) is ahead of us right now but the defense is always ahead of us a little bit this time of year," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "We have a big, fat playbook. Their playbook says "man" or "zone." What else is there? So it's OK."
Defensive end Patrick Kerney, a free-agent pick-up starting on the left side, has been impressed by what he's seen of the Seahawk defense -- particularly in the context of effort. "I have to keep up with them," said Kerney, known for his high-revving motor. "These guys play hard. That is something I've always taken pride in myself. There is a great standard here, which I like. I want to contribute to that and see if I can raise it a little bit."
Kerney's impact as a pass rusher could be significant as the Hawks managed just seven sacks in the final seven games of 2006. Blown coverages led to big plays so often in 2006 that starting safety Michael Boulware was benched and Ken Hamlin was allowed to leave via free agency. Their replacements, Deon Grant and Brian Russell, are counted on to be more assignment-correct. During the early going of camp, Russell has taken over most of the chores of coordinating coverages. The two are interchangeable enough that the "free" and "strong" designations are not always relevant. At times, as plays develop, the two merely switch responsibilities rather than positions. Russell said that allows them to better disguise coverages.
Both have shown efficiency on safety blitzes, too.
Second-year cornerback Kelly Jennings is stepping into a starting role on the right side, and showed his playmaking ability and speed -- during a scrimmage in which he intercepted a pass and ran it back 99 yards for a touchdown -- with speedy reserve quarterback Seneca Wallace in hot pursuit. The addition of second-round rookie Josh Wilson gives the Hawks a pair of fast young corners to go along with veteran Marcus Trufant. Trufant said that Wilson is such an intelligent player that even just a week into his first training camp "it's like he knows everything already."
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 8, practice at Husky Stadium, 9:15, open to the public. Aug. 24, camp breaks
--When former 49ers coach Bill Walsh died, Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren lost a mentor and a friend. Walsh gave Holmgren his first chance as an NFL assistant. As did others, Holmgren cited Walsh as a true innovator in the game. "I always said that he was an artist and all the rest of us were blacksmiths pounding the anvil while he was painting the picture," Holmgren said.
--Third-round draft pick Brandon Mebane has made an early impression on his fellow defensive tackles. "He has a bright and long future in this league," said Chuck Darby. "He's so explosive off the rock, he gets off blocks and is a good pass rusher." The 6-1, 314-pound Mebane plays with such great leverage it's as if he's a 345-pounder, Darby said. "He's got a great attitude to play this game," Darby said. "He's come to me and to Rocky Bernard and asked us things. That shows that he's willing to learn. He's playing at a high level, but he's also humble."
--One of the things that appealed to free agent safety Deon Grant about coming to Seattle was the chance to play for new secondary coach Jim Mora. "I heard so many great things about him, I wanted to come play for him," Grant said. "Coach Mora is one of those coaches you dream about playing for. You can't ask for more than to have as your DB coach a guy who has been a head coach, who knows about everything in the game from both sides of the ball. That's a great thing."
--An early fan favorite who likely will see more action this season is backup fullback Leonard Weaver, who missed all last season on the IR with a high ankle sprain. "I'm still learning a lot and I'm still a young player," the 25-year-old said. "But I'm very confident about what I know and what I can do, and I'm working to get better every single day." Missing last season was difficult, but Weaver said he grew from the experience. "Trials are a test of your faith," Weaver said. "Can you fight back? Do you have it in you? Can you persevere? You learn about your character. Adversity comes your way for a reason and it helps you see your purpose in life."
--Safety Brian Russell has taken over some of the leadership duties in the secondary, and helps school the younger players on what to anticipate on every down. "He studies more film than anybody I've ever seen," cornerback Kelly Jennings said. "He's always talking (on the field), saying 'expect this' and 'expect that.' He knows what to expect in every situation. He already knows everything."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think I am much calmer than I used to be in the old days. I have learned to delegate. I don't care how long you coach, I think if you're willing to listen and willing to make an attempt to get better, you're learning all the time." -- Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
On the first play of their first scrimmage, the Seahawks lined up in their four-wide formation, and the one back on the field was Leonard Weaver. Weaver, a former college tight end, has convinced the staff that his pass-catching skills and open-field running have earned him more playing time. "He will have an expanded role," coach Mike Holmgren said. "We've talked about Mack (Strong) not getting as many reps. Mack knows that." Holmgren stressed that the key to Weaver's eventual replacement of the 35-year-old Strong at fullback will be his ability to serve as a lead blocker for Shaun Alexander and a pass protector for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
--LT Walter Jones sat out a practice and the Hawks' first scrimmage to rest a sore shoulder. Jones is now 33 and the staff said that giving him some days off during camp will be a way to protect him for the long season.
--WR Ben Obomanu suffered a neck injury during a scrimmage. He was able to walk off the field on his own and further exams were being scheduled.
--TE Ben Joppru suffered a hip injury during a scrimmage. His condition was being re-evaluated.
--S Jordan Babineaux is sidelined with a bone bruise in his right knee. He is expected to miss the first three to four weeks of camp.
--DT Craig Terrill suffered from some knee soreness and missed a practice. With Marcus Tubbs already on the PUP list, the numbers of healthy DTs has dipped.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: D.J. Hackett vs. Nate Burleson. The starting split end job may be more competitive than it appeared at the start of camp when it appeared to be Hackett's job to lose. Burleson has been having a very strong camp and is playing with much more confidence. Hackett has made a few mistakes that have caught Holmgren's attention.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Right guard. The question continues whether to start veteran Chris Gray or untested Ray Willis at right guard. Gray is 37, while Willis has been bumped down from his natural tackle position to create competition for the starting job. Gray is savvy and assignment correct; Willis is more physical but still raw at the position.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Cornerback Kelly Jennings. The second-year cornerback starred in the team's first scrimmage, scoring on a 99-yard interception runback.
ROOKIE REPORT: Cornerback Josh Wilson showed good make-up speed while coming up with several nice pass deflections in the scrimmage. ... DT Brandon Mebane has been one of the more impressive defenders in pass-rush drills. ... OLB Will Herring also has made some big plays as his increasing understanding of his responsibilities seems to have allowed him to capitalize on his quickness.
INJURY REPORT: OT Walter Jones (shoulder) did not participate in the scrimmage, but is expected to be back after a brief rest. DT Craig Terrill sat out with a sore knee, and TE Will Heller continues to be bothered by a sore ankle. WR Ben Obomanu left the scrimmage with a neck injury, though he practiced on Sunday. WR Courtney Taylor suffered a knee injury that will keep him out four weeks. TE Ben Joppru suffered a hip injury that caused him limping off the field.
With first-round draft pick Levi Brown finally signed, sealed and delivered to training camp, the Cardinals are attempting to figure out exactly what to do with him. Initially, Brown, a tackle from Penn State selected fifth overall in the draft, is backing veteran Oliver Ross on the right side. Coaches are pleased with veteran Mike Gandy's work on the left and Ross, after two disappointing seasons in Arizona, has shed weight and begun to perform the way the new coaching staff remembers him when they were together in Pittsburgh.
So the early come-through of Gandy and Ross not only gives Brown time to count his money, it takes a great deal of pressure off him to step in as a starter and perform at a high level immediately. Brown agreed to a six-year contract that can be worth as much as $62 million. About $18 million of it is guaranteed. A large portion of the deal is incentive-based and in the final year. Many of the incentives would be difficult to attain, but if Brown becomes the player the Cardinals believe he will be, he no doubt will have signed a new contract by that sixth year, anyway.
Like so many other Cardinals rookies, the 7,000-foot elevation at Cardinals training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz., quickly got to Brown during his first practice. "I was dead just doing the going-over-the-bag drills," Brown said. "It was ridiculous. But my body will get used to it." Brown missed eight practices over six days while the contract was finalized. He is expected to push Ross hard by midseason and, depending on Gandy's performance on the left side, could even swing over there and push to start. Brown played the left side in college, where he was an All-American.
"I'm behind. I have some work to do," Brown said. "(Playing on the right side) is a different stance and feels a little different at first but after a while, you just do it and get the job done. They picked me very high, so everyone's expecting me to start but that's a position I have to earn. It's not going to be given to me. Oliver Ross is in front of me right now and he's not going to give up his job. So, we're going to be competing for that spot."
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 8: Practices from 7-9 p.m. under the lights outside at Lumberjack Stadium replace the intra-squad scrimmage that traditionally was played in the Walkup Skydome.
Aug. 23: Team breaks camp after a morning walkthrough.
--Ken Whisenhunt especially liked the tempo and physical nature of the first week of his first camp as Cardinals coach. "As with anything, there have been a number of mistakes that you wish we wouldn't make in the beginning, but that's normal." Whisenhunt said. "You've got to know which guys you can put in there in games, especially preseason games, that aren't going to screw things up. But overall, I'm very pleased with the work ethic and the attention to detail."
--Whisenhunt has not said how much he will play RB Edgerrin James during preseason games. Whisenhunt has hinted that he may play other starters more than the norm initially as he sorts through personnel. James is accustomed to taking it easy during preseason play, but the Cardinals have a new coaching staff, new offense and new line to break in.
--James was moved by the retirement of RB Curtis Martin. James had admired Martin's play for years and visited with him in New York a few weeks before the opening of camp. Martin ranks fourth on the NFL career rushing list, a height that James hopes to approach before his time comes to retire. "I made a special trip to New York just to go see Curtis," James said. "I look at Curtis as a mentor. He's one of the greatest players to play the game. We traveled similar paths, which is why I can relate to Curtis and why he went at football the way he did. I'm going to keep trying to get to where Curtis is."
--ILB Karlos Dansby is opening eyes with his work inside in the new 3-4 defense after he'd played the strong side and developed a reputation as an all-around playmaker his entire career. In his three years, he has had 17 sacks, six forced fumbles and four interceptions over three years. The fast start is a departure from his previous camps under Dennis Green. "It was motivation just to get back on the field and show why the Cardinals organization brought me here," Dansby said. "Now I'm getting an opportunity to really show what I've got. I came in in shape. I'm taking care of my body, and I'm ready to make things happen." Coaches made the position change to put Dansby in better position to do what he does best -- run and hit. "Our quarterbacks have said to me, 'If he's in coverage, it's difficult to throw the ball in the seams because he's such a big, rangy guy in there and can move,'" Whisenhunt said.
--NT Alan Branch impressed coaches during the first week with his attitude, a departure from the laggard reputation Branch brought with him from Michigan, which caused him to drop from a top 15 draft position to the top of the second round. The Cardinals traded up four places to snag him in April. "He wants to be good, and that's one thing about Alan I really like, that he wants to be a good football player and he's trying to do it the right way," Whisenhunt said. Branch is pushing veteran Gabe Watson, a former Michigan teammate. "I still feel like I was the bet defensive lineman in the draft," Branch said. "But once you get on the field, all that stuff went out the window. If you think about other stuff like that when you're out here doing what you're supposed to be doing, you're not going to be able to focus and do your job."
--CB Antrel Rolle is on the comeback trail after two subpar seasons not befitting the eighth pick in the 2005 draft. Rolle started every game last year but had just one interception and was penalized for pass interference seven times. "I don't feel like I've been making the big plays," Rolle said. "Playing off-coverage, every game, all game, that's not my cup of tea. I like to get in your face, beat you up at the line of scrimmage and make you beat me." The new staff is giving the corners more freedom and flexibility regarding whether they press or play off the receiver, for which Rolle is grateful.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He has a great ability to hit the edge as a pass rusher. I saw him beat a couple of our tackles in the one-on-one pass rush, and it seems to me he's got a little spring in his step." -- Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt, on veteran Bertrand Berry, a former Pro Bowler, who is moving to OLB from DE in the new 3-4 alignment while coming back from a triceps tear that ended his 2006 season at 10 games.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--All the talk about the "move" to the 3-4 defense from the 4-3 is amusing to Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt. He says the only difference often is where a tackle is positioned. "That's why I haven't made a big issue about it," Whisenhunt said. Veterans Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor are now OLBs instead of DEs, LB Karlos Dansby moves inside from the strong side and Darnell Dockett goes to DE from DT. "It is to our advantage for us to have a bunch of options," Dockett said. "The big advantage is we have been together three, four years, and it doesn't matter what scheme it is."
--RB Marcel Shipp is on his way to defending his position as the short-yardage and goal-line back. He has the big body and power to be effective in the role. But coaches are searching for ways to get more from RB J.J. Arrington, a second-round pick in 2005. So they're toying with alignments with Shipp and the speedy Arrington on the field together in interchangeable roles in relief of Edgerrin James. "We're kind of evaluating both those guys and finding out what they do well," Whisenhunt said. "I know it's tougher for the defense to identify if you have two guys who can kind of play dual roles. So we're trying to train those guys in those roles now. As far as identifying strength of formations, it makes it much more difficult for defenses. A lot of times their blitz packages and how they defend you are set off the strength of the formation."
--RT Levi Brown, the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft, signed a six-year contract that can be worth as much as $62 million. About $18 million is guaranteed. He missed eight training-camp workouts. Brown is working with the second unit behind Oliver Ross. But Brown played the left side in college and could wind up there.
--WR Larry Fitzgerald, whose relationship with the new staff started slowly after he was crushed by the release of longtime friend Dennis Green, is off to a great start, making incredible catches on the practice field.
--FB Terrelle Smith, a veteran free agent, has made numerous crushing blocks while leading Edgerrin James.
--LT Mike Gandy is making talk of moving rookie Levi Brown to the left side moot.
--OLB Bertrand Berry has made a smooth adjustment to his new position in the new 3-4 defense, and played especially well in pass-rush drills.
--DE Darnell Dockett has been impressive in his new role, moving in the 3-4 from DT. He is shining in individual pass rush drills.
--S Oliver Celestin, who was with Seattle last year under new Cardinals defensive backs coach Teryl Austin, signed a one-year contract. He is expected to be a strong contender for a roster spot to add depth. Celestin also has played for also has played for the New York Jets.
--S Will Gulley, a rookie free agent from Houston, did not report to camp. He was a long-shot to make the roster.
--G T.J. Downing, a rookie free agent from Ohio State, left camp due to a personal matter and was released. He was a long-shot to make the roster.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Already the competition is intense to land receiving spots 4 and 5 behind Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson. Former Steeler Sean Morey is the early leader of the pack, leaving burners Steve Breaston, Todd Watkins, and Micheal Spurlock to battle for the fifth spot.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Steve Breaston and Micheal Spurlock are the early leaders in the battle to return both kickoffs and punts but they have competition. J.J. Arrington, Marcel Shipp, and Sean Morey are working on kickoffs. Bryant Johnson and Roderick Hood are working on punts. Both jobs are wide open.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: LB David Holloway continues to make an impression. The rookie free agent from Maryland has been especially effective in pass coverage with his interceptions and knock downs.
Initially considered a long-shot to make the roster, Holloway is beginning to open some eyes on the coaching staff.
ROOKIE REPORT: T Levi Brown, the Cardinals first-round pick, is now signed and in camp. He is expected to battle for a starting position. Initially, he is backing Oliver Ross on the right side. He could move to the left, where he played in college, to push Mike Gandy. ... LB Buster Davis, a third-round pick, and WR-KR Steve Breaston had impressive opening weeks.
INJURY REPORT: FB A.J. Schable had surgery Tuesday to repair a fractured right foot and will be out at least eight weeks, making him a strong candidate for injured reserve or an injury settlement. He was backing Terrelle Smith.
--DT Jonathan Lewis sprained a medial collateral knee ligament Friday and is expected to miss at least two weeks. He was working as a backup.
--CB Roderick Hood returned to practice Wednesday after suffering a sprained ankle Tuesday afternoon. He is battling Eric Green for a starting job.
--CB Eric Green missed practice Friday because of a quadriceps bruise but is expected back soon. He is battling Roderick Hood for a starting job.
ADD TO ROOKIES SIGNED: RT Levi Brown (1/5), 6 yrs, as much as $62M, $18M guaranteed.
ADD TO FREE AGENTS SIGNED: S Oliver Celestin, 1yr, terms undisclosed.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
With the death of legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh, several in the organization lost a person they considered a mentor. Walsh died last Monday at 75 after a three-year battle with leukemia. The 49ers will wear "BW" decals on their helmets this season. Coaches will wear a patch on their shirts. As general manager of the 49ers, Walsh awarded defensive lineman Bryant Young a six-year, $38 million contract in the spring of 2001. Although some wondered at the time if Walsh had overpaid to keep Young, the deal turned out great for both sides. Walsh was also instrumental three years earlier when Young sustained a career-threatening broken leg.
"When I got hurt, he was uplifting, and gave me words of encouragement," Young said. "I owe him a lot for being there for me." Head coach Mike Nolan and assistant head coach Mike Singletary consider Walsh a mentor, even though neither coached nor played for him. Nolan said he spoke almost weekly with Walsh during his first two seasons as head coach. The two shared a three-hour lunch about a month before Walsh died, Nolan said.
"It's said because we lost a friend," Nolan said. "The 49ers lost a friend and I've lost a friend. But I'm appreciative for the time we had." Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker with the Bears, said he has more notes on coaching from Walsh than anyone else in the league. In each of the four years he has been an NFL assistant, Singletary met at least once with Walsh to learn from the master.
"I wrote out everything he said," Singletary said. "He'd say, 'Write this down.' But I wrote everything down. And then I'd have my wife or my daughters type it up. I have pages and pages of notes from him."
Singletary yearns to be an NFL head coach. He has interviewed for four openings and figures to be a hot candidate again at the end of the season. "One of the biggest things he said to me was, 'When it's time, it'll happen,'" Singletary said. "You don't sit around wondering why it's not happening, you keep pressing and you keep preparing. He told me, 'If you do what I'm telling you to do, you'll be ready.'" Quarterback Alex Smith also is grateful for the time he spent with Walsh. While Smith was going through some struggles on the field as a rookie, he got advice from just about everyone with whom he came in contact.
He met with Walsh about a half-dozen times and he always expected more advice. "Who could talk better than anyone about being a quarterback?" Smith said. "But he always talked about life, and asked how I was doing. He never forced anything. I felt he knew what I was going through. I appreciate that way more than the guys who gave me advice."
CAMP CALENDAR: The 49ers practice at their in-season practice facility in Santa Clara, Calif. Most practices are closed to the general public, but the club has scheduled several free open sessions. Camp breaks Aug. 22.
--It's not unusual for teammates to mix it up during training camp. But usually scuffles break out between offensive and defensive players. On Saturday, high-profile offensive players Vernon Davis and Larry Allen got into a heated confrontation on the sideline. It took several teammates to pull the players apart. Davis had to be restrained from going back after Allen. When asked if it was a concern, 49ers coach Mike Nolan paused for five seconds before answering. "Yes and no," he said. "I don't like guys fighting (because) someone might get hurt. But if you're fighting about something, it means something to you. That's really important. We didn't score on that first drive like our offense wanted to. I know that was the frustration of all 11 guys coming off the field."
--Allen reported to training camp a day after his teammates. He had an excused absence because of personal reasons. Allen reported at his playing weight of 340 pounds, he said. "He looks great," Nolan said. "I told him he could start modeling for GQ."
--TE Vernon Davis has stood out on the practice field. He is a big part of the offense, and he also makes sure everybody on defense knows he's a big part of things. He has gotten in almost daily shoving matches with his defensive teammates. Said teammate Nate Clements, "He brings energy. He's a competitor, and he backs it up. He's doing what he's supposed to do. He's not going to back down, and that's great. We're out there making each other better. It's all in good fun."
--Running back Michael Robinson was out of action for a couple days after suffering from dehydration but he remained active as a quasi-coach. Newcomer Arkee Whitlock was signed one day and had to take a lot of reps on the practice field the next day. He probably would not have been able to make it through practice without Robinson, who broke the huddle with Whitlock and told him what to do on every play. Said Whitlock, "He is a great teacher. He's got a future as a coach."
"We're all here to make each other better and make the team better," Robinson said. "You don't want to see someone get embarrassed and not know what he's doing. The best way for the team to get better is for everyone to be playing at their highest level. If one person doesn't know what he's doing, it slows down the practice and the whole team doesn't get better because of it."
--Right tackle Kwame Harris said he is working hard on being more consistent in his pass protection. He surrendered 8.5 sacks last season, according to STATS, Inc. Harris pointed to the 49ers' 34.4-percent conversion rate on third downs as an area in which he can help the team improve from last season. "I think part of that has to do with protection up front and that falls on all of our shoulders -- it falls on my shoulders," Harris said. "So that's going to be a constant point of emphasis for me. I love playing football. I love running the ball. That's where a lot of my passion lies. At the same time, they're not handing it off all the time. So that's a point of emphasis for me coming into this camp."
--Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain is being counted on to supply the 49ers with most of their pass rush. Assistant head coach Mike Singletary expects big things out of the free-agent acquisition. Singletary said he believes Banta-Cain will record at least 10 sacks this season. "There's no reason he shouldn't be one of the leading sack guys in the league," Singletary said.
--Coach Mike Nolan truly meant it as a compliment when he called fullback Zak Keasey "ugly." Keasey, who has spent the past two seasons on the practice squad, certainly was not offended. "I know where he was coming from," Keasey said. "It's more about my playing style on the field. I give it all I got and work real hard and I'm a gritty, hard-nosed player. I do the best I can." Nolan has said Keasey has a good chance to win a roster spot this season. Nolan often uses him as an example when talking about players who have the heart to play in the league.
"Zak Keasey looks ugly to me, but he plays pretty darn well," Nolan said. "I like Zak." Nolan also noted that Keasey is a lot different than Kevan Barlow, the running back Nolan traded last year to the Jets for a fourth-round draft pick. "I don't want a talented guy just because he's talented," Nolan said. "Frank (Gore is) really talented and he wants to play. Kevan Barlow has some talent, but he's just ... get him out of here. And you have guys like Zak Keasey, who just has a heart of gold. The son of a gun just might make it because he's tough as nails."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If I see things are quiet and the guys aren't getting rowdy, I'm going to take it upon myself to do something about it. I want that X on my back. Put it on me. Come and get me." -- Tight end Vernon Davis on his willingness to ruffle some feathers and annoy his defensive teammates.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The 49ers might be inclined to rotate offensive linemen more than they have in the past, coach Mike Nolan said. It is conceivable that the club could plug Adam Snyder into the lineup at left guard in place of Larry Allen on occasion. The team could do the same thing at right guard, where David Baas has shown strong improvement but might not beat out Justin Smiley. "It would be too crazy to slip in a Baas or a Snyder to keep guys fresh," Nolan said. "I don't like doing too much of that, but at the same time guys get worn down."
--RB Arkee Whitlock was signed after the 49ers went down a couple players. The Vikings released Whitlock, an undrafted rookie from Southern Illinois, earlier in the week.
--S Darnell Bing has been working into the action slowly with the 49ers after being claimed off waivers from the Raiders. "I like the way he looks," Nolan said. "You want bigger, stronger, faster guys. But it's too early to tell where he is as a football player."
--WR Taylor Jacobs had an impressive offseason, and he has carried it over to an impressive start at training camp. Jacobs is also working on punt returns, which could determine whether he earns a roster spot.
--WR Brandon Williams has made significant strides in the offseason from last season. Williams' main value to the team appears to be as a punt returner. He is sure-handed but he average less than seven yards a return as a rookie.
--LT Damane Duckett is making the transition from the defensive line. He has shown some potential but he is still very raw. He had a rough scrimmage, as he tried to work against Tully Banta-Cain.
--LB Hannibal Navies, who worked most of the offseason as an outside linebacker, has been moved to the inside during training camp.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Derek Smith vs. Patrick Willis for starting "mike" linebacker -- Smith is have a strong opening to camp after a rocky season in which he had an eye problem that clearly affected his play. Smith is a reliable veteran who has a good grasp of the defense. Willis, the No. 11 overall pick, has fantastic physical tools. He has great speed and awareness. The team marvels at how quickly he has picked up the defense. Currently, Willis is slated to be the team's nickel linebackers while Smith is No. 1 on the depth chart in the base defense. "It's like when you have a veteran quarterback who's a good quarterback versus a guy coming in who has a rocket for an arm and all those things," assistant head coach Mike Singletary said. "Which one do you play? I think you play the one who helps you win at the moment."
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Michael Robinson, Maurice Hicks and Thomas Clayton are in competition for the backup RB job. The 49ers need to find someone reliable behind Frank Gore, who might not play in the exhibition season due to a broken hand. Robinson and Hicks are clearly ahead of Clayton at this stage. Kwame Harris vs. Joe Staley at RT. Harris, the incumbent, started every game the past two seasons. He is strong as a run-blocker and not as consistent in pass protection. Staley, a rookie, has shown good feet and strength. Staley has a legitimate chance to emerge as the starter. Justin Smiley vs. Davis Baas at RG. Smiley is coming off a strong year, but he is in the final year of his contract. Smiley's future with the 49ers is in question, and Baas showed tremendous improvement in the offseason. Still, it looks as if Smiley will win the job.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Tight end Vernon Davis. He has created a stir on the practice field with his actions, but there is no denying Davis is playing football at a high level. The 49ers have an improved corps of wide receivers, but Davis seems to have asserted himself as quarterback Alex Smith's top target. With the 49ers' emphasis on improving on third downs and in the red zone, Smith has consistently looked for Davis as one of the top options in the offense. Davis has responded. He looks more comfortable than at any point in his rookie season, and he is catching the ball much better.
ROOKIE REPORT: Linebacker Patrick Willis stood out on the practice field during the first week of practice because of his speed and hitting ability. Willis spent extra time after at least one practice working against wide receiver Marcus Maxwell on his cover skills. ... Right tackle Joe Staley has looked strong in both pass protection and run-blocking. He has a strong chance to unseat Kwame Harris as the starter at RT. ... Receiver Jason Hill is working primarily with the third team but has shown some flashes of his speed and receiving skills. He will make the 53-man roster but it's uncertain if he'll work into the rotation. ... Defensive end Ray McDonald is working with the second unit at RDE. He could be a factor as an inside pass rusher in nickel situations. ... Nose tackle Joe Cohen played well in the scrimmage. He is likely competing against Isaac Sopoaga for a roster spot. ... Safety Dashon Goldson is a second-team safety. ... Running back Thomas Clayton has experienced some struggles early in camp as he learns what the team expects from its backs. ... Outside linebacker Jay Moore is working with the second unit. He made one of the best plays of the scrimmage when he tip an Alex Smith pass at the line of scrimmage and then scrambled back to make a lunging interception. ... Cornerback Tarell Brown is a backup behind a set of quality veteran players. His physical skills have been apparent through a week of camp.
INJURY REPORT: RB Frank Gore could return to practice this week with a broken right hand. The team might hold him out of the preseason games to allow his hand to fully heal for the regular-season opener.
--DL Bryant Young has experienced some soreness in his back. He practiced sparingly in the first week, but the condition does not appear to be a concern at this stage.
--WR Arnaz Battle was held out of two days of workouts to rest his sore right knee.
--WR Darrell Jackson has been practicing after missing most of the offseason program with a turf toe. It looks as if he's holding back a little to make sure he doesn't aggravate the injury.
--OT Tavares Washington is likely out a week with a knee sprain.
--LB Jeff Ulbrich was held out a couple days as a precaution after feeling "woozy" from a hit.
--RB Michael Robinson was held out a couple days after being taken to the hospital to be treated for dehydration.
--LT Jonas Jennings experienced a stinger in practice. Two days later, he was held out of the team scrimmage to give him some rest.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
There's not as much of Orlando Pace as there has been in the past, and the team's left tackle is happy about that. Pace played only eight games last season, first because of a concussion and then with a torn triceps that put him on injured reserve. He was limited in the off-season, but was declared full go when training camp started. He also reported weighing 321 pounds, the lightest of his career. "I think just the older you get in this league, the lighter you have to play and it will help out on my knees and hopefully with some of those muscles pulls and hopefully I won't have as many of those," Pace said. "I am just going to try to be in better shape so I can focus solely on football.
"(The) last couple years, I've been trying to work my way into shape once I got into camp. This year, I put in a conscious effort to try to come in and not have to worry about weight." Rams coach Scott Linehan said along with conditioning coaches Dana LeDuc and Brad Roll and trainer Jim Anderson, they suggested to Pace he cut his weight. "We talked to him about it," Linehan said. "When you get up there at this point in your career you have to carry less weight to avoid having those kinds of leg injuries he's had with calves. I know it was a different one with his triceps, but he's just bought in and been a true professional and come into camp in the best shape he's been in in a long time."
Asked if it's good for an offensive lineman to drop weight, Linehan said, "You have to have a combination of size and the ability to move your feet and athleticism at that spot. He doesn't lack the size. He can carry more weight naturally, it's just that at this point we're finding he stays healthier when he has less weight on him and that's a critical part at this point in his career."
As for his triceps, Pace said, "Some days it feels good and some days if I sleep on it too hard it will be sore. So you just never know what it will be. I understand that so you have to be cautious about it."
Pace likes what he saw of the younger linemen like guards Mark Setterstrom and Richie Incognito, who received a lot of playing time last season. He wants to continue to be a leader.
"I have to be a leader out there," Pace said. "I'm really excited about the line this year. The young guys did well last year when a couple of guys went down. That's what we are hoping for this year that that experience helps them and I'm expecting big things."
CAMP CALENDAR: Camp opened July 27 with the first practice the next day. There was an intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 4. Camp closes Aug. 19.
--The team conducted its annual intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 4, and after a quiet first seven days of practice, a major fight broke out when safeties Corey Chavous and Oshiomogho Atogwe instigated an incident with running back Steven Jackson. It actually occurred before the scrimmage began. Jackson threw some punches after Chavous gave him a hard hit and Atogwe tried to strip the ball from Jackson rather aggressively. That prompted a brawl, which had calmed down when guard Richie Incognito grabbed a helmet and tossed it into the air. The combatants then went at it again.
Said coach Scott Linehan, "It's that time of year. These are the dog days. I think that was just an example of where you've got to keep your composure. Those are the kinds of things that'll cost you a game. You get a guy kicked out of the game, or a personal foul on an untimely part of the field. ... It's unacceptable, and it is non-negotiable. So we've got to get that corrected. "You're riding that edge all the time in football," Linehan said. "When you're competitive ... you are always on that edge, and you can never cross it. ... You've got to keep your cool no matter how tired or how frustrated. Whatever happened, you've got to turn and go back to the huddle."
Just two days before the scrimmage coordinators Jim Haslett (defense) and Greg Olson (offense) had talked to their units about cutting down on unnecessary additional hits. Incognito called the fight "a high testosterone situation. (But) it's more of a right and wrong. Don't hit Steven. Don't touch Marc (Bulger). It's not about me being macho out there. It's kind of like the sheriff, just keeping things cool. ... When something goes down like that, and you've got people punching at your running back, who is a huge part of our offense, you've got to step in and say something."
He did say that when everyone was in the locker room after practice, there was laughter from players on both sides of the ball. "We're a family," Incognito said, "and sometimes families have fights."
--LB Chris Draft was on the practice field Aug. 3 after missing the first week of training camp because of complications from asthma. Draft left the field early in the team's first practice July 27. Draft spent two nights in the hospital and took numerous tests to pinpoint the problem. It was first described as asthma, then doctors thought it was a throat infection. By the end of the ordeal, it was still believed to be asthma but with an allergy involved.
Draft said, "(They think) "some allergens or something" was the problem. "Anything that gets my throat and everything inflamed a little bit, the asthma's just going to act up a little bit more. I had me a nice little asthma attack, so it takes me a few days for everything to kind of calm down." Recalling the first day of camp, Draft said, "I just couldn't catch my breath. Sometimes I can't catch my breath a little bit early, and then I get my inhaler and I'm good. But for some reason it wouldn't loosen up.
"That first day, it really kind of kicked in a little bit, and kind of kicked me in my butt a little bit. That's one of the biggest things with moving from team to team. Other people are looking at it as just a change of scheme, change of this, change of that. When I'm looking at it, I have to add on the factor that I'm about to change what I know. And that's the air." Draft was in Carolina last season and has also played in Atlanta. After participating in the team's scrimmage Aug. 4, he said, "I'm getting better. Today, I felt a lot stronger than I did the day before. It's a long training camp, so I'll have enough time to feel like I really want to."
Coach Scott Linehan was glad Draft was back on the field. Following his first full practice, Linehan said, "You can tell he's been out on the field for years. You can tell he's started a lot of games. He's so comfortable, so smart -- he understands. This is his first year in this defense and you would think he'd been here all of last year. He's getting his legs back underneath him. I know he's still gaining some strength, but he's been pretty darn good."
--Linehan has liked what he's seen from second-year cornerback Tye Hill, who is expected to be a starter. "Tye looked why we drafted him in the first round last year. I think he's ready to take his game to a new level," Linehan said. "He's going to be getting a lot of one-on-one matchups against (opponents') best (wide receivers), and ... we think he feels pretty confident in that role.
"Corner's one of the toughest positions in football when it comes to the pressure they have on them as far as performing -- one-on-one coverage, potential height mismatches, all those things. I think what Tye's starting to do is be more consistent and that's gives him an edge he probably didn't know he had as a rookie and you can see a much more confident player."
--MLB Will Witherspoon continues to impress coach Scott Linehan. Witherspoon signed as a free agent in 2006, and switched fulltime to the middle. Now, he is in his second season at the position as well as the second year in defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's system. "The second year is a big difference for any position, but for a guy who is playing in the middle and getting all those reads, who has been playing a lot of 'WILL' linebacker (weak side most of his life, there is a comfort level or a learning curve," Linehan said. "He is much more comfortable. Now, he is a 'MIKE' linebacker, where before he was a guy who was a 'WILL' playing the 'MIKE' and is learning it on the run. It is a great way to utilize what he does best, which is run sideline to sideline. Now he is doing the little things and the mental things that he needs to do as a middle backer."
--When asked what he likes most about his team, coach Scott Linehan didn't hesitate. "Our team character," he said. "I have always been impressed with that. I think there is a tradition being on this football team. We have been to two Super Bowls in the last eight years and won one. We have won a lot of football games. Time changes and things change for whatever reason, but I think the character has always been one of the strong points of this football team. This particular team from last year to this year is extremely strong and is one of the best character teams I have been around at any level."
Asked how he defines character, Linehan said, "It is what you do when a coach isn't watching or pushing you. If you are working hard and doing things that aren't necessarily required. I think your character is tested when you're tired. It is tested when you are competing and you get knocked down and you see if you dust yourself off and get up and give it your best the next play. I have seen more of those types of scenarios than at any time to this point last year."
QUOTES TO NOTE: "You're talking about two guys who were born with football pads on." -- Coach Scott Linehan on rookies Adam Carriker and Brian Leonard.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Linebacker Jamal Brooks played seven games for the Rams in 2006 in two different stints with the team, but went through the entire off-season as an unrestricted free agent. When injuries hit early in camp to the team's linebacker corps, Brooks was quickly summoned back. Asked about being released last season and being unsigned for five months, Brooks said, "I saw Emmitt Smith get released. I've seen Jerry Rice get released. So, you don't take it personally. Life is life. People get fired every day. At least this is something you love, and you're going to get another shot if you just believe in yourself."
--The Rams signed veteran guard Milford Brown, who had been released by the Cardinals in June. Coach Scott Linehan said of Brown, "We evaluated him and put a good grade on him when he was coming out, as far as his potential. Then you can evaluate him since he has played in the league as recently as last year, so you have an evaluation playing against players you are pretty familiar with. We thought he played very well. He is very physical. He has a little bit of a mean streak in him too. With his size, that is a good combination. His offensive line coach from last year is a good friend of mine. (Steve Loney) is no longer at Arizona. He and I visited for quite a while and he is very high on him so that helps too."
--LB Jamal Brooks, who played seven games for the Rams during the 2006 season, was re-signed because injuries had depleted the linebacking corps. Brooks was not signed by any other team during the off-season after becoming an unrestricted free agent in March.
--OG Milford Brown, who started 12 games for the Cardinals last season, was signed by the Rams during the first week of training camp. He is competing against current starters Mark Setterstrom and Richie Incognito, and backups Adam Goldberg and Claude Terrell.
--C Dave Pearson, released by the Lions on July 24, was added to the roster for depth. Ahead of Pearson on the depth chart are Andy McCollum, Brett Romberg and Dustin Fry.
--CB Jonathan Wade was impressive early in camp, and is in the mix for the nickel cornerback job, with Fakhir Brown suspended for the first four games of the season.
--CB Fakhir Brown is appealing a four-game suspension handed down by the NFL for violating the league substance abuse policy. Brown missed a test in early July.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Brock Berlin for No. 3 quarterback job -- When the Rams signed Berlin after the team's early May minicamp, it seemed Berlin was just on board to be the camp arm and fourth quarterback. However, Berlin, who was released by the Cowboys during the off-season, turned some heads at the team's Aug. 4 scrimmage, and he has injected himself into the competition. He completed six of seven passes for 42 yards and a 20-yard touchdown to TE Mark Anelli.
Fitzpatrick was 7-for-14 for 77 yards, had one interception and struggled with some snaps. Said Berlin, "It's good to get out there and play. You want to perform and do well, and just have a good time."
OTHER BATTLEFRONTS: There are several candidates for the team's sixth receiver, if they keep that many. One is Dominique Thompson, who spent time on the practice squad the last two seasons. "He deserves (the reps) from how he started and where he's come since he's been here," coach Scott Linehan said. "He had a great offseason, and this is a great time" for him to get work. Also in the mix are Marques Hagans, switched from quarterback to receive as a rookie in 2006, and this year's seventh-round pick Derek Stanley.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: LB Quinton Culberson -- Because of several injuries to linebackers, Culberson has been at the forefront in practices and is taking advantage of the opportunity. An undrafted rookie free agent from Mississippi State, Culberson reminds some of linebacker London Fletcher, an undrafted free agent with the Rams in 1998. Although bigger (6-1, 236) than Fletcher, but not as fast, Culberson has shown a nose for the ball and has delivered some big hits. He has been working with the second unit.
"He was bringing it yesterday and I noticed it here today," coach Scott Linehan said. "I noticed when he puts the pads on; the light comes on with that guy. It's always good to see guys that are maybe considered long shots come out and start to show up a little bit."
ROOKIE REPORT: Another undrafted rookie free agent opening eyes is 5-8, 170-pound CB Darius Vinnett, who, like Culberson is getting snaps with the second team. Asked about Vinnett, coach Scott Linehan said, "'Long shot' I guess is an accurate term. But for now it's wide open and we are going to keep the best 53 players on our roster. There are a few that have locked positions, but we want a guy like him to continue to grow. He was a guy that played that position in nickel and as a backup. He was probably not big enough to play full-time when he was in college at Arkansas, but he played well when he was in there. That is showing up out here as well."
Linehan on rookie CB Jonathan Wade, a third-round pick: "I really anticipate he's going to continue to compete to be on the field on defense, whether he's at corner or in the nickel spot or wherever it is. That's our goal, and he's not disappointing. He really improved his conditioning. I think he is going to be a heck of a special teams player as a young player and he will want to get into that rotation. But we have a long way to go before we get there."
INJURY REPORT: TE Joe Klopfenstein and LB Tim McGarigle remain sidelined by hamstring injuries. ... LB Jon Alston missed two days of practice because of a concussion. ... WR Lamart Barrett is out with a shoulder injury. ... OT Ken Shackleford suffered a mild knee sprain in the team's Aug. 2 morning practice, and was expected to be out a few days. ... WR/KR Dante Hall did not play in the scrimmage because of a sore hamstring. He should be ready to practice by Tuesday and play against the Vikings Aug. 10.
OG Claude Terrell, who missed the entire 2006 season because of a wrist injury, is healthy. "I haven't seen any reason to believe he has any problem with it anymore," coach Scott Linehan said. "He looks good. He has that natural size, that wide body (6-2, 330 pounds), and that's one thing you can't coach. I've been really happy about the progress he's made since he's come back off that rest." Terrell is competing for a backup spot, along with Adam Goldberg and Milford Brown.