TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Find out if Ken Hamlin is all the way back: Hamlin hasn't played since suffering a fractured skull last October. He returned to the field for minicamps in May and June, but his first full-contact work will be at training camp. As a rookie in 2003, Hamlin showed great promise as a hard-hitting free safety with range. He suffered through a bit of a sophomore slump in 2004. His career was gaining momentum early last season when Hamlin suffered the skull injuries during a fight outside a Seattle nightclub.
For a while it was unclear whether Hamlin would recover from his injuries, let alone resume his career. He has made a remarkable recovery, but no one knows how he'll respond to full-contact work. Will he shy away from big hits? Or will he again become the intimidating presence Seattle has sought in its secondary?
--Re-develop continuity on the offensive line: The NFL's best line from 2005 returns without one of its best players after three-time Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson signed with Minnesota. Seattle still has lots of experience on the line, but continuity is a concern early. The team needs Floyd Womack to get healthy and stay that way. Womack is a massive man with the size to match up against any defensive tackle. He is also athletic enough to play either tackle position.
But with more time in the training room than on the field, Womack hasn't been of much value to the team. He was supposed to be the starting right tackle last season, but a torn triceps tendon changed those plans. The tendon flared up a bit during minicamps this offseason, forcing the team to explore other options at the position.
The line will be fine if Womack can get the reps he needs during training camp. But the line will be diminished if injuries force Seattle to play Tom Ashworth or another player at left guard.
--Prepare for a reduced role from Darrell Jackson?. The veteran receiver plans to rest his surgically repaired knee as much as possible during camp. There's a chance Jackson will return to form and stay on the field enough to be a factor all season, but Seattle needs to start preparing itself for life without him. Jackson missed 10 games last season. He has never been much of a practice player, often because of injuries. If Jackson misses time against this season, the Seahawks won't have Joe Jurevicius to catch 10 touchdown passes in his absence.
The team does expect big things from Nate Burleson, who was signed from Minnesota. A healthy Bobby Engram gives Seattle another starting-caliber player at the position, while the continuing development of D.J. Hackett also figures to help.
The resurgence of Peter Warrick could be the wild-card for Seattle. If he returns to the form he showed before knee surgery (and there are indications he might), Seattle might not need Jackson so much.
CAMP CALENDAR: Camp opens with the first full practice July 29; camp breaks Aug. 24. Scrimmage scheduled for Aug. 5.
--Coach Mike Holmgren impressed colleagues with the way he handled his resignation from the competition committee this offseason. Holmgren made no mention of frustrations that lingered from controversial officiating in the Super Bowl. "We've been with Mike for three days and not once did he bring up the Super Bowl or anything that had to do with the Super Bowl," committee co-chair Jeff Fisher said at the time of Holmgren's resignation. "All he talked about was what was good for the game. Mike epitomizes what is important as far as the committee is concerned."
--Shaun Alexander recently walked away with two ESPY awards, one as the NFL's best player and another for having the best record-setting performance. Alexander didn't really need the validation after claiming league MVP honors, but he'll take it. So will ESPN. As USA Today put it: "Things worked out for ESPN with Reggie Bush getting Best Male College Athlete and Shaun Alexander getting Best NFL Athlete. Both happen to be in new TV ads for ESPN cell phones."
--The organization has downplayed the impact of losing Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson in free agency. Their confidence might take a hit, however, if Floyd Womack can't stay healthy. "Obviously we've got a real good guy that would be starting on most teams backing up in the name of Womack," team president Tim Ruskell said earlier in the offseason. "And so the key will be where do we put him and then where do we put (Tom) Ashworth as we go forward.
"I think whatever mix comes out of the chute, it's going to be a good line. It's been a good line, even when 'Hutch' was not in there. This team has always been a good offense whether it was Jerry Wunsch or Floyd Wedderburn or whatever. They were able to continue going forward."
--The Seahawks have huge expectations for linebacker Julian Peterson. They see him as the kind of difference maker the defense has lacked during Mike Holmgren's tenure as coach. The key for Peterson will be regaining top form after suffering a torn Achilles in 2004.
"If everything happens OK as far as health-wise, anything is possible," Peterson said. "I can tell you one thing, you will get a player who is going to be playing 100 percent and giving it his all no matter what the circumstances are. I just play the game the way it is supposed to be."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When you get a lot of guys like we have and you put them together, you like that because you don't have to teach one guy to go hard every play. They all know their job and they know what they're supposed to do, to play hard. If you get guys to play hard, you have a chance to win." -- Defensive line coach Dwaine Board.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The release of veteran punter Tom Rouen signals another change at the position for Seattle. The team has gone from Jeff Feagles to Rouen to Ken Walter to Donnie Jones to Leo Araguz and back to Rouen in recent seasons. None of those players is with the team, leaving rookie seventh-round choice Ryan Plackemeier to compete with NFL Europe veteran Gabe Lindstrom this summer.
Plackemeier looks like the favorite. He has the backing of team president Tim Ruskell, who drafted him, and it was clear from minicamps that Plackemeier has plenty of leg.
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Settle the offensive line: The Cardinals now have a fine 1-2-3 running back combination in Edgerrin James, Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington. They have former MVP Kurt Warner at quarterback and what they believe to be an excellent quarterback in waiting in rookie Matt Leinart. Management wouldn't be keen on seeing any of them maimed as a result of the sort of line play the team suffered through while winning six and five games the past two years.
Steps have been taken. Guard Deuce Lutui was a first-day draft pick. Guard Milford Brown was signed during free agency. The team still is trying to assess how, and where, they will fit in, but they bring added value to the group. Guard and center play has been shaky. The team is considering moving starting left guard Reggie Wells to center to compete with Alex Stepanovich. That would open left guard for Lutui as a rookie. Brown figures to start ahead of Elton Brown, who was forced to play as a rookie before he was ready.
While the three inside positions appear to have been upgraded, it is likely the team once again will start Leonard Davis, the second pick in the 2001 draft, at left tackle and Oliver Ross, signed as a free agent in 2005 because of his mauler run-blocking reputation with Pittsburgh, on the right. Both were serious underachievers in 2005 and will need to step up their games. The Cardinals moved the ball through the air -- led the league in passing yardage -- but could not get the critical yardage on the ground in third-down and goal-line situations. Consequently, they had the weakest rushing statistics in the league and scored in 3s -- kicker Neal Rackers set an NFL season record in field-goal kicking -- rather than 7s. That has to change.
--Settle the defensive line: There are now a multitude of interesting pieces, and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's M.O. has been that of the mad scientist, concocting whacked out schemes, packages and plans. He has had to be clever because the defensive line personnel has been thin as the result of injuries. Pass-sacking phenom Bertrand Berry returns from an injury at right end and Chike Okeafor is a good complement bookend at left end. Depth may be an issue, especially if the team follows through on an encouraging off-season experiment and moves 2003 first-round pick Calvin Pace to outside linebacker, where depth also is an issue.
And who lines up between Berry and Okeafor will be one of the most interesting stories of camp. Nose tackle Russell Davis went to Seattle as a free agent. The Cardinals signed free agent Kendrick Clancy and drafted Gabe Watson and Jonathan Lewis. Clancy has NFL experience but Watson has the greatest upside -- if he shuns his dog image and decides to play every down.
At under tackle, under sized Darnell Dockett has started his first two years in the league, but largely by default. He is a live-bodied, athletic playmaker but his skills might be better suited at end, where he could fill a critical shortage. Yet he may be too good to keep off the field. Dockett was slated to be the backup to Kenny King when Dockett came into the league in 2004. Then King missed two years because of wrist problems. King now is back, presumably healthy, and if he returns at the level he was at going to camp in 2004 he, too, will be too good to keep off the field.
Where Dockett and King land and who wins the nose tackle job will be key to the improvement of a unit that was decimated by season-ending injuries and, consequently, was a sieve by year's end with helpless civilians on the field.
--Prove to themselves that they are for real: The roster is full of players who would be welcome anywhere -- James, Warner, Leinart, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin on offense; Berry, Karlos Dansby, Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle on defense; Rackers and punter Scott Player on special teams. From a personnel standpoint, it is not the same old Cardinals.
They move into a new stadium, which is sold out for the season -- this for a team that has been among the worst in the league in home attendance and has had one winning record since moving to Arizona in 1988.
Excitement is high in the community and the players are talking a good game. They are saying the right things about how those in the locker room believe, perhaps more than the public, that things are about to turn.
But do they really believe it? A great team wins as many games in one season as the Cardinals have won in the last three combined. Attitude in training camp and through preseason will be key. And it will be enhanced by backing words with on-field performance. The team has to hit the practice field from the opening day with a playoff mind-set and show to each other that they really do have what it takes to be a competitive, mainstream NFL franchise. They must smash the culture of losing that so many others who come from winning programs have left in the rearview mirror when they've come to Arizona. Changing that might be the most critical training-camp goal of all.
CAMP CALENDAR: The Cardinals report to training camp at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., on July 30 and have their first workout the morning of July 31. Camp ends on Aug. 17. Among the key changes are no intra-squad scrimmage and no weekend practices -- Saturdays and Sundays off, an attempt to make the Monday through Friday regimen more intense and give players' bodies time to heal. Widespread injuries were a problem last season. The team works out on the fields just east of the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome at NAU. If it rains -- and afternoon thunderstorms are common in Flagstaff in August -- they move workouts inside.
--Although rookie QB Matt Leinart, chosen 10th overall in the first round, has yet to sign his contract, he has purchased a multi-million-dollar home in the Ahwatukee area of Phoenix, about four miles from the Cardinals' Tempe training facility. But second-round pick Deuce Lutui, who was Leinart's college teammate at Southern California, and who has signed his contract (four years), closed on a four-bedroom home with a pool in more modest Mesa, about a 20-minute drive to the team's headquarters. Lutui grew up in Mesa, where he was a Cardinals fan.
Leinart is expected to be the team's No. 2 or No. 3 quarterback this season as he learns the league and the team's system, but he is expected to be the franchise quarterback for many years after Kurt Warner retires in another year or two. Lutui might be in the lineup first, possibly as early as opening day, at left guard.
--A workout in new Cardinals Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., will replace the annual intra-squad scrimmage during training camp. While all workouts in camp at Flagstaff, Ariz. are open to the public, the workout in the new stadium will be closed. Coach Dennis Green wants to players to get used to their new home before their preseason opener Aug. 12 against Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh, the initial game to be played in the $455 million retractable-roof, retractable-field facility.
--While the Cardinals have marketed their first home season in their new stadium as sold out -- all of the season tickets that were on the market quickly were gobbled up and they have a sizable waiting list of people who have plucked down deposits -- the truth is that it is not. Yet. The team held back three percent of the inventory -- roughly 3,000 tickets -- to be sold as single-game for each of their 10 home dates. Those go on sale July 15 and are expected to quickly make the season sellout official. The team also is issuing tickets -- they're free, but required -- for tours of the new building during August. Based on early demand, they expect about 120,000 to take the tour.
--There is a lot to like about the new Cardinals Stadium -- innovative architecture, retractable roof to mitigate early-season triple-digit Sundays, luxury suites marketed as "lofts," the only retractable playing surface in North America -- but anyone who suffered through a brutal Sunday during the team's 18 seasons of home games at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium no doubt will be more impressed with one simple luxury: the seats.
They all have backs, all have cup holders and are wider -- 19 inches for the cheapest, 21 inches for the priciest. At Sun Devil Stadium, most seats were aluminum bleachers. There was no climate control. Couple uncomfortable seating on a hot day with a lousy on-field product and it was no mystery why the team was nearly always last in the league in home attendance.
This season, it appears the TV blackout will be lifted every home Sunday -- and those who get tickets will be seated in cool comfort to watch a team with an upgraded roster and a chance to reverse years of losing.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Am I ready? I'm ready for football. It's a great time for Arizona Cardinal football. We're trying to turn things around. We've got the new stadium." -- G Deuce Lutui, the team's second-round pick, on signing a four-year contract.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--G Deuce Lutui, the team's second-round pick from Southern California, signed a four-year contract. Terms were not disclosed. Lutui will compete at left guard, where he is expected to be a strong challenger to Reggie Wells, who might move to center and pave the way for Lutui to start as a rookie. Lutui was the 41st player chosen overall.
--DT Jonathan Lewis, the team's sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech, signed a three-year contract. Terms were not disclosed. Lewis is among three newcomers with a chance to win the vacant nose tackle position, along with free agent Kendrick Clancy and fourth-round pick Gabe Watson, who has not yet signed. Lewis was the 177th player chosen overall.
--No one has yet begun throwing around the "H" word, yet anyone who follows the Cardinals knows they're known for their first-round holdouts. As a highly drafted quarterback who has won a Heisman and a national title, Matt Leinart no doubt will be looking for a huge payday. The Cardinals' first-round pick, taken 10th overall, has not yet come to terms, but with two weeks before teams go to camp very few others selected in that stratosphere are under contract, either.
Given the Cardinals' history, it is a situation that will bear close scrutiny as camp nears, though. Also yet to sign: TE Leonard Pope, a third-round pick, and NT Gabe Watson, a fourth-round pick. Pope is expected to move into the lineup and might have the greatest immediate impact of any of the team's rookies. Watson has a dog image to overcome and if he can do it, he has the tools to challenge free-agent Kendrick Clancy to start.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Get everyone on the same page defensively: Jim Haslett is the team's third defensive coordinator in four seasons, and he arrives along with numerous new players after two years of problems with the defense. There will be at least five new starters, and maybe more depending on what happens at cornerback. Defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, middle linebacker Will Witherspoon and strong safety Corey Chavous are definitely new starters. Glover was signed after being released by the Cowboys, while Witherspoon and Chavous were both signed as unrestricted free agents. Not only are they expected to contribute on the field, but their leadership off the field is being counted on.
There will be competition at free safety between O.J. Atogwe and Jerome Carter and at strong-side linebacker between Brandon Chillar and Raonall Smith. In addition, Jimmy Kennedy slides over to be the starter at nose tackle. At cornerback, free-agent addition Fakhir Brown and first-round pick Tye Hill will be battling with Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler for starting spots.
It won't take much for the defense to improve, but how much will depend on how quickly everyone can blend together. "I'm really happy with the attitude and approach our defense has," coach Scott Linehan said. "I think that's an area we addressed in the offseason with acquisitions and draft picks. You just see a group developing cohesiveness. I think that's the most exciting thing going on around here."
--Establish who will be the tight ends: The Rams selected Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd in the draft, and each is expected to see significant playing time. Klopfenstein was picked in the second round and Byrd in the third. New coach Scott Linehan likes to include the tight end in the passing game, and both rookies have the skills to contribute. They can get down the field, as well as catching the ball in traffic and the red zone. The question will be how fast they can contribute and whether their blocking ability will be good enough to help the running game. There is no established blocking tight end on the roster for those short-yardage situations that are crucial, but several players will be competing, including Aaron Walker, Alex Holmes and Rod Trafford.
--Find a left guard: Last season, there were several starters at the position, and it appeared Claude Terrell would be the favorite for the job this season. Terrell started 10 games as a rookie, but needed an off-season of strong workouts to build his stamina and get in better shape. However, Terrell was bothered by a wrist injury throughout the off-season, and did limited work in OTAs and minicamps. That paved the way for Richie Incognito to stake a claim to the job. Incognito did not play as a rookie in 2005 because of a knee injury suffered at the Combine, and he practiced only one day with the team. However, he worked hard in the off-season, and by the June mini-camp was practicing with the first unit at left guard. It now appears to be his job to lose. Veteran tackle Todd Steussie could be in the mix if all other options fail.
--Tony Softli, the Rams' new vice president of player personnel, once worked out of football with computers. While with the Panthers as director of college scouting, he created a computer-based system of evaluation that Rams president of football operations Jay Zygmunt called "cutting edge." The program remained in Carolina, but Softli said, "It's all in my head. I'm looking forward to sitting down with the Rams' IT department and putting it to work for them." Zygmunt added that it wasn't only the computer work that made Softli appealing to them, it was his "passion for evaluation." Zygmunt said, "He understands that the technological advances are meant to be a tool, a means to an end."
--New middle linebacker Will Witherspoon likes what he's seen in the off-season of his teammates and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's system. "We had a great draft, all around I think we have done a lot of great things," Witherspoon said. "The coaches have done a great job of getting a good group of guys together. I think this is a fresh start for all of us. We are getting to a point where we are working together and becoming a family-knit group that you really want. "I think this is going to be a great system. Guys are making strides every day. We are still installing and getting things in. Things are improving; guys are getting better and understanding of everything they need to do."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I love the defense. The defense is a lot different than in the past. It's a lot more blitzing, you don't let the offense dictate the tempo of the game and it lets us make plays." -- Cornerback Jerametrius Butler.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Get the passing game going: Quarterback Alex Smith had a miserable rookie season, but he did not get much help, either. The 49ers surrounded the top pick in the 2005 draft with perhaps the worst talent in the league. Still, if the 49ers are going to make a big leap from owning the lowest-rated passing offense in the league, Smith has to adapt quickly to new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system. The 49ers enter training camp with, essentially, a whole new group of pass-catchers for Smith. The club's new No. 1 receiver is Antonio Bryant, whom the 49ers signed as a free agent after he led the Browns with 69 catches for 1,009 yards and four touchdowns.
A lot will be expected from rookie tight end Vernon Davis, a speedster who was chosen with the No. 6 overall pick. Additionally, backup tight end Eric Johnson, who led the team with 82 catches for 825 yards in 2004, is healthy again after missing last season with a foot injury. Arnaz Battle is a solid all-around wideout but was healthy for only three games last season because of a lingering knee problem. The 49ers are searching for a reliable No. 3 receiver with rookie Brandon Williams and journeymen Bryan Gilmore and Jason McAddley leading the group.
--Find a consistent pass rush: The 49ers did not put up much of a fight to retain outside linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter, who signed lucrative free-agent contracts with the Seahawks and Redskins, respectively. Although neither played well last season, Peterson and Carter represented about the only pass-rush potential on the team. Those expectations will have to be replaced this season, but by whom?
The 49ers dealt for a second pick in the first round and landed outside linebacker Manny Lawson with the No. 22 overall selection. Lawson is the only accomplished pass-rusher on the team, and he has yet to put on pads at the NFL level.
Twelve-year veteran Bryant Young led the 49ers with eight sacks last season, but he showed signs late in the season of wearing down. He did not record a sack in the team's final nine games, three of which he missed because of a knee injury. Because of the 49ers' unsettled secondary, it is more important than ever that the club generates heat on opposing quarterbacks. Last season, the 49ers recorded a sack once every 21.6 times the opposition dropped back.
--Settle the offensive line: The addition of future Hall of Fame lineman Larry Allen, who was signed the day after the Cowboys released him, at least means left guard on the 49ers' offensive line is spoken for. The 49ers' offensive line was one of the many weak spots last season. Quarterback Alex Smith was sacked once every 6.7 times he dropped back as a rookie. The only other spot on the line where there does not figure to be any competition is at left tackle, where it's Jonas Jennings' job as long as he's healthy. Jennings missed 13 games in his first season with the 49ers because of a shoulder injury.
Former Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry rarely practiced with the team last season, as a knee injury kept him from working with the rest of the unit. He missed the final six games after finally opting for surgery. If he is unable to play this season, Eric Heitmann and David Baas will compete for the job. Heitmann and Baas will also compete with favored Justin Smiley at right guard.
The best competition should be at right tackle, where incumbent Kwame Harris will have to work hard to hold off Adam Snyder.
CAMP CALENDAR: Full squad reports on Thursday, July 27, with first practice scheduled for Friday, July 28. The 49ers will not hold a scrimmage. Nine dates are open to the public. Each of the nine open practices feature interactive games and player autograph sessions for fans. The free open practices are scheduled for Saturday, July 29 (9:00 a.m.), Monday, July 31 (4:00 p.m.), Wednesday, Aug. 2 (4:00 p.m.), Friday, Aug. 4 (4:00 p.m.), Saturday, Aug. 5 (3:00 p.m.), Monday, Aug. 7 (4:00 p.m.), Wednesday, Aug. 9 (4:00 p.m.), Sunday, Aug. 13 (9:40 a.m.) and Tuesday, Aug. 15 (4:00 p.m.). More than 3,000 people are expected to attend each ticketed practice. To obtain tickets, fans must register online at www.49ers.com. Tickets are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis.
--Long-snapper Brian Jennings was excited this offseason because he was certain that for the first time in his tenure with the club, the 49ers would not be making any changes at kicker or punter, which also doubles as the team's holder on kicks. Well, not so fast. The 49ers recently signed veteran punter Tom Rouen to compete with two-year pro Andy Lee, who had a solid season last year. Rouen, a 13-year player, averaged 41.6 yards a punt last year with a net average of 35.0. Lee set a team record with 107 punts. He also averaged 41.6 yards with a 36.3 net average.
--Receiver Derrick Hamilton has not practiced with the 49ers since sustaining a torn left ACL in May 2005. He was not cleared to take part in any of the team's 11-on-11 work during the offseason program, yet the day after the 49ers' final minicamp, he played basketball in a charity game. Hamilton threw down a dunk when the 49ers basketballers defeated the Raiders. Coach Mike Nolan said afterward that he knew nothing about Hamilton playing basketball. Hamilton spent last season on PUP and underwent a follow-up surgery early this year.
"Usually if a guy is not cleared, they have a policy to keep them from doing things like a basketball game," 49ers spokesman Aaron Salkin said. Nolan said in the future he will make sure the club's policy is communicated properly. Hamilton's agent, Philip Williams, said he did not know his client had played in a basketball game, but trusts his judgment. "If he did, I'm sure he wasn't out there putting himself in jeopardy," Williams said. Prior to Hamilton's injury 13 months ago, he was in position to be a contributor with the 49ers in his second season in the league. Now, the club's receiver corps is going to be tough to crack with Antonio Bryant, Arnaz Battle, Brandon Williams, Bryan Gilmore, Jason McAddley, Rasheed Marshall, Marcus Maxwell and Otis Amey.
"The whole process in some ways could end up being good for Derrick," his agent said. "It all shows that you can't take anything for granted, and you have to focus on what you got to do. From every report I've gotten from the 49ers, Derrick has done everything they expect from him. Now, he just has to get on the field and prove himself."
--The 49ers will have training camp at their Santa Clara, Calif., practice facility for the fourth year. And with the addition of a synthetic turf practice field, it is doubtful the club will move moving training camp any time in the foreseeable future. This summer, the 49ers have scheduled nine practice sessions that are open to the general public. "We are happy to once again offer our fans a unique way to see the 49ers in a fun setting," said David Peart, vice president of sales and marketing. "Camp is an exciting way for our faithful fans and players to connect. Fans can expect a wonderful experience as they watch the team practice on their own turf."
During the open practices members of the Gold Rush cheerleading team and mascot "Sourdough Sam" also will be in attendance. Participants will have the opportunity to take pictures with one of the team's Super Bowl trophies.
--Could it be that the 49ers are finally ready to unveil plans for a new stadium? A team spokesman said things are getting close, and an announcement on a new stadium to replace dilapidated Candlestick Park (or Monster Park, as it's now called) could be coming around the start of the regular season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's handled himself very well. He's a hard worker. He's here early in the morning and he's the last to leave. He lifts with the big guys. He's not a prima donna. He's a football player" -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan on QB Alex Smith, who will enter his second season in the league.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The 49ers did not strike in the supplemental draft, but they were nearing a free-agent contract agreement with raw linebacker David Dixon, who failed to qualify academically for Kansas State after last playing for Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. If Dixon has a good summer camp, he is expected to be a practice-squad candidate.