Training camp goals
1. Determine the wide receiver hierarchy.
What was the deepest strength of the team last season has quickly become its largest question mark/concern, with even the first wide receiver spot yet to be determined. Deion Branch is out for part of the season and is likely to be placed on the physically unable to perform list, meaning Bobby Engram would start in his place. But the veteran Engram is unhappy with his contract after turning in a career season, has held out of two voluntary minicamps and has threatened to boycott the beginning of training camp. Because of the stiff fine imposed on players who actually carry out that threat, nobody in the organization believes Engram will miss any time. But that distractions serves to take away the issue at hand, which is determining which of their young wide receivers will be viable threats. Explosive but inconsistent Nate Burleson will be the starting split end, and after that it is an open competition between Courtney Taylor, Ben Obomanu, Logan Payne and Jordan Kent. Taylor is the front-runner for the third spot, but he regularly gets hurt. Obomanu is solid but unspectacular. Payne may be the most intriguing of the group because he is tough and possesses great hands. Kent is a burner but with little knowledge of the game, having played it for only three seasons.
2. Determine how the backfield will be used.
With Shaun Alexander released in the offseason, there is hypothetically a wide-open competition in the backfield, as well. Julius Jones seemed to cement himself as the starter during OTAs, but that was in shorts. Once players start hitting, there is a chance that Jones reverts to the form that many thought was soft in Dallas. If that is the case, it leaves an opening for Maurice Morris, who has backed up Alexander for six years, or T.J. Duckett, who is playing with his fourth team in four years. Duckett is the one player for whom coach Mike Holmgren does not have a feel, unsure of whether is an every-down back, a short-yardage back, a goal-line back, or even a tailback or fullback. Leonard Weaver is entrenched as the starting fullback, but his backup has not been determined in a competition between fifth-round pick Owen Schmitt and free agents Dan Curran and David Kirtman.
3. Establish a rotation along the defensive front.
The Seahawks had their most success last season when they were able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. Patrick Kerney had a career season, but by the end he was taking on three blockers and wore down. To that end, the team drafted defensive end Lawrence Jackson in the first round and tackle Red Bryant in the fourth. They also are attempting to get back Marcus Tubbs, who has missed all or parts of the last two seasons with knee injuries. If the coaches can get a rotation established where all those players can be highlighted at different times, much like the New York Giants did last season, they feel they have the best chance to win a fifth consecutive division.
CAMP CALENDAR: Players report July 23 and camp opens in Kirkland, Wash., on July 25. Camp moves to new training facility Aug. 17 in Renton, Wash.; Aug. 28 camp closes.
Training camp goals
1. Settle on a starting quarterback.
Minutes after the 2007 season ended, coach Ken Whisenhunt named Matt Leinart as the starting quarterback for 2008. And the coaches have been answering questions about the move ever since. That's because Kurt Warner proved he has something left, despite turning 37 last month. He passed for 27 touchdowns as a part-time starter, while Leinart struggled through most of his five starts a year ago.
But the Cardinals need to find out what they have in Leinart, the 10th overall pick in the 2006 draft. He showed flashes of ability as a rookie, but his development has been delayed by injuries and the changing of coaches. Whisenhunt knows what he has in Warner, a wily veteran who can still stick the ball in tight places and hit receivers while they are in full stride. He can also fumble too often and his gunslinger attitude isn't an easy fit with Whisenhunt's offense.
Still, Warner's success last season has given him a great deal of credibility in the locker room, something Leinart hasn't gained yet. Whisenhunt will give him that chance. Ideally, coaches would like to see Leinart practice and play so well this summer that there will be little question he should be the starter. More likely, Leinart will endure the inconsistencies typical of young quarterbacks, and the quarterback situation will be lingering when the season starts.
Whisenhunt will be patient. He knows Leinart still has some growing pains to endure, so the coach won't have a quick hook. But if the Cardinals struggle in the first month, the coach won't sit idly by and squander a season by being stubborn, either.
2. Get their minds right.
It's a favorite saying of strength coach John Lott, and it holds true for the mental outlook of this club. Some key players are involved in contract matters with the team: receiver Anquan Boldin, defensive end Darnell Dockett, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, strong safety Adrian Wilson and quarterback Kurt Warner.
Boldin has said he's undecided about reporting on time, despite having three years left on his current deal. Dockett has four years left and wants a new contract. Wilson wants to be among the highest-paid safeties in the league.
Dansby, the franchise player, wants a long-term deal. Warner is willing to play a couple more years, but wants a legitimate shot at a starting job.
This all has the potential to ruin the positive vibe created by last year's 8-8 record in Whisenhunt's first year. The season ended with everyone blowing kisses, filling up balloons and looking forward to 2008. But contract problems can poison such an atmosphere. Whisenhunt has to hope that his key players report on time and keep their contract situations from ruining team chemistry.
3. Find a defensive rotation.
The depth is much better than it was a year ago, especially along the front seven. It looks like the club should have a solid rotation at the three defensive line spots, as well as the two outside linebacker positions. But it's going to be hard to keep everyone happy, especially veterans at defensive end and linebacker. Bertrand Berry has returned from a sore triceps, but he will begin camp behind Travis LaBoy, a free-agent signee, at the weak-outside spot, called the "Predator" position in this defense.
Berry took a $3 million pay cut rather than get released, so he likely would accept a role as a situational pass rusher. On the strong side, Chike Okeafor returns from a torn bicep, but he's battling for a starter job with Clark Haggans, a free-agent signee from Pittsburgh.
Two rookie defensive ends, Calais Campbell and Kenny Iwebema, should be able to spell defensive ends Antonio Smith and Darnell Dockett.
CAMP CALENDAR: Players report on July 23 and have a conditioning test the next day. Camp ends Aug. 21. All training camp practices will be held at Northern Arizona University and are open and free to the public.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Training camp goals
1. Solidify the offensive line.
The Rams thought their line was solid and had depth entering training camp one year ago. But the dominos started falling when guard Richie Incognito suffered an ankle injury in the second preseason game, backup tackle Todd Steussie broke a bone in his foot 12 days later and left tackle Orlando Pace tore his labrum in the season opener 10 days later. By the time the season had ended, the Rams had 13 different players start games on the line at 18 positions. Pace, left guard Mark Setterstrom and right guard Richie Incognito missed a total of 40 games. The effect on the offense was traumatic.
Now, Pace is hopefully back, Setterstrom was switched to the right side, Jacob Bell was signed to play left guard and Incognito moves from right guard to compete with Brett Romberg at center. One key is Pace's health, but most important will be having stability on a week-to-week basis. When the Rams were a combined 49-15 from 1999-2001 and 2003, their offensive line missed a total of seven starts in those four seasons.
2. Figure out the best six wide receivers.
There is an interesting logjam at the receiver position, especially among younger players competing for jobs. Torry Holt seems to be the one sure thing after another Pro Bowl season, but he is 32 years old, has a problematic knee, and seemed upset in the offseason following the release of Isaac Bruce. His mindset will be watched closely in training camp. Drew Bennett is the other presumptive starter, but he has to prove his first season with the Rams was a result of injuries and not a deterioration of skills. After Bennett, things are wide open. Rookies Donnie Avery (second-round pick) and Keenan Burton (fourth round) impressed the coaches in OTAs with their attention to detail and work ethic learning the offense. They bring needed speed to the receiving corps.
Also competing for spots will be Dane Looker, who will have to win a job as a receiver because he won't be the holder on placekicks anymore; veteran Reche Caldwell, who was with offensive coordinator Al Saunders in Washington last season; kick returner Dante Hall, who turns 30 in September; and youngsters Derek Stanley and Marques Hagans. The final spots will likely come down to kickoff and punt return ability.
3. Find pass rushers.
Linebacker Will Witherspoon led the team with 7.0 sacks last season, most coming after defensive end Leonard Little was sidelined for the season with a toe injury and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett had to be creative to get any pressure on the quarterback. Little had just one sack, and all of the team's ends totaled 5.5.
Little is back, and was running well in the offseason. But he will be 34 in October, so an infusion of youth was needed. That led to the choice of Chris Long with the second overall pick in the draft. He is expected to come in and make an immediate impact, with James Hall perhaps being more effective playing fewer downs.
CAMP CALENDAR: Players report to Concordia University in Mequon, Wis., July 24 with the first practices the following day. After practice in Wisconsin on Aug. 5, the Rams will travel to Nashville to practice with the Tennessee Titans the next two days prior to the first preseason game Aug. 9. The team returns to Mequon after the game, and camp will break on Aug. 14.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Training camp goals
1. Find an acceptable starting quarterback.
Alex Smith passed the eyeball test during the 49ers' offseason program. But now he has to prove that he can lead the team better than the other two candidates for the team's starting quarterback job, Shaun Hill and J.T. O'Sullivan. Smith is bigger, has a stronger arm and is more athletic than the other two quarterbacks. But Smith's critics say he lacks the feel and presence expected out of NFL quarterbacks. Therefore, he must adapt quickly to Mike Martz's offense and prove to the coaching staff and his teammates he can consistently move the team down the field and score points. For his part, Martz hasn't echoed the criticism of Smith.
Smith appeared to be on the verge of becoming a decent NFL quarterback at the end of his second season. But last year was a disaster. He got off to a slow start, though the team posted a 2-1 record. Then, he sustained a separated right shoulder that eventually required season-ending surgery. Also, he and coach Mike Nolan waged an ugly public battle that has sense been patched up, according to both men.
2. Figure out how to maximize the presence of Justin Smith.
The 49ers claimed they had a plan for Smith after signing him to a six-year, $45 million contact as a free agent. However, the 49ers spent most of the offseason trying to figure out what to do with him. Smith played his entire career at right defensive end in the Cincinnati Bengals' 4-3 defense. The 49ers run a 3-4. They are hesitant to play Smith entirely on the defensive line because those spots are reserved mostly for "dirty work" players in a three-man front. The 49ers want to feature Smith in the defense, so that will likely mean he will line up at outside linebacker on some pass-rush situations.
The 49ers are in need of a better pass rush. Although Smith is coming off a season in which he recorded just two sacks, the 49ers are counting on him to apply some pressure to opposing quarterbacks to relieve some of the pressure off the team's defensive backfield.
3. Start to build an offensive identity.
With Martz installing a complex offense, the 49ers must make good use of their field time during training camp. Although the basic terminology of the offense has not changed, there is simply a lot more for the players to learn. One addition Martz made was bringing "hot reads" to the offense. In many blitz situations, the quarterback will now be responsible for identifying the pressure and getting the ball out quickly to a pre-determined target. Running back Frank Gore figures to be the centerpiece of the offense. He carried the ball 260 times after rushing 312 times in 2006. Gore's carries are likely to take another dip, though he can be expected to be targeted more out of the backfield on pass routes. This is an area of the game that Gore excels. He has led the 49ers in receptions the past two seasons.
With Martz becoming the 49ers' sixth offensive coordinator in six seasons, he has to find what the team does best and have the players embrace it. The 49ers' offense needs to find an identity.
CAMP CALENDAR: Club reports to training camp in Santa Clara, Calif., on Thursday, July 24, with first practices scheduled for Friday, July 25. The 49ers break camp on Aug. 22.