The Seahawks' schedule presents an early opportunity followed by an uphill fight toward the finish line. September road games against Arizona and San Francisco give the Seahawks a chance to reassert their NFC West dominance early in the year. Beating those teams on the road would make Seattle a strong favorite to collect a fourth consecutive division title.
Stumbling in those games could open the door for the 49ers, Cardinals or Rams to win the West. Starting slowly would leave Seattle vulnerable because the team finishes with four road trips in its final six games. That includes three games on the East Coast and four in the Eastern time zone, games that play tricks with the Seahawks' internal clocks by forcing them to kick off at 10 a.m. Pacific time.
"Every year I feel the same way," coach Mike Holmgren said. "It looks tough. There is a lot of travel at the end of the year." The offseason has been filled with talk about Arizona and San Francisco closing the gap with Seattle in the NFC West. For evidence, consider that the Cardinals and 49ers posted a 3-1 record against the Seahawks last season.
Seattle still won the division by two games, coming within an overtime loss of a second consecutive appearance in the NFC title game. But the Seahawks finished only 3-3 in division games after winning all six NFC West games during the 2005 season.
The 49ers in particular are viewed as a team on the rise. "Last year we started to believe we could win," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "The year before, we were hoping for the best. But off of what we did in free-agency -- and we'll have a good draft -- when we go into training camp, we can start to build off that."
The Seahawks will look to get healthy after losing key starters to injury last season. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck continues to rehab from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. Shaun Alexander should be healthy again after missing time with a foot injury last season.
On defense, run stuffing tackle Marcus Tubbs faces a tough road back from microfracture knee surgery. Cornerback Kelly Herndon is coming off a broken ankle. Linebacker Leroy Hill struggled with neck issues. Getting those players healthy will be important if the Seahawks hope to reestablish their place atop the division. Beating the 49ers and Cardinals on the road early the season might send them on their way.
--Matt Hasselbeck won't be playing a biker in "Scouts Honor" or any other upcoming movie. Producers initially listed Hasselbeck among several current and former NFL players scheduled to appear in the movie. They would have played bikers run out of town by kids who were determined to retake their town. Hasselbeck is busy rehabbing a shoulder injury. He never agreed to do the movie. Ahman Green and Todd Heap were also listed as having roles, but producers recently removed their names from press releases.
--Seneca Wallace appears entrenched as the Seahawks' backup quarterback, at least for the upcoming season. Seattle brought in David Carr for a free-agent visit, only to watch him sign with Carolina. The Seahawks have been dabbling with the idea of taking fuller advantage of Wallace's athletic ability by playing him at other positions. But the staff has been reluctant to take that step without having an experienced backup quarterback on the roster.
David Greene, a third-round choice in 2005, is the third quarterback. "Seneca had a chance to play last year and did OK, so he gives you a sense that we can get it done," coach Mike Holmgren said. "Now, with David Greene, he's got to take a step this year. And he's a capable guy. Now I just have to see him be able to take what his natural stuff is and put it into a game. ... His accuracy is the big thing. Matt's hurt so he is not going to participate in the offseason, so those other guys will get a lot of work."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The thing I like about Jim, he's enthusiastic. His expectations are always high. He never allows a player to bring down his expectations of what they should be doing and how they should be producing. And I love that." -- Defensive coordinator John Marshall, on the addition of Jim Mora, Jr. as defensive-backs coach
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
1. Defensive tackle: The draft is considered strong at the position. Seattle needs a reliable big body given that 2004 first-round pick Marcus Tubbs is recovering from microfracture knee surgery. When healthy, Tubbs is a 330-pound space eater with the quickness to blow up plays. Seattle probably won't find a similar talent without a first-round pick, but the team could use more size inside.
2. Offensive line: Seattle failed to land the marquee guard it sought in free agency. The team brought back Floyd Womack and Chris Gray as insurance, and one of them could start at right guard. The Seahawks will draft one or more interior offensive linemen. They need to develop another young prospect to join Rob Sims and Chris Spencer.
3. Defensive end: Signing Patrick Kerney in free agency helped, but the Seahawks are still a man short at the position. They released Grant Wistrom, who appears headed for retirement. Coaches prefer to go with a rotation to keep players fresh. Bryce Fisher logged too many snaps last year. A little more size wouldn't hurt, but team president Tim Ruskell seems to like the smaller guys with speed.
The year was 1998. It was the third season under coach Vince Tobin for the Cardinals. Finally, there was excitement locally surrounding the woebegone franchise that had been in the desert for almost a decade, had gone through four coaches and had yet to produce a winner. Jake Plummer, who'd guided Arizona State to an unbeaten regular season and to within seconds of a national championship, would be going into his first full season as the starting quarterback. The Cardinals believed that finally they had their franchise signal-caller to serve them for years.
And the schedule they faced statistically was the weakest in the NFL. The Cardinals went 9-7, still their only winning record since moving to Arizona in 1998, and won their first playoff game in a half century.
Fast forward to 2007.
The schedule announced this week statistically is the weakest in the NFL. Hotshot quarterback Matt Leinart, who did win a collegiate national title, is going into his first full season as the starter for new coach Ken Whisenhunt -- the Cardinals' seventh in their 20th season in the desert. Just as there was in 1998, there is excitement surrounding the franchise, which opens Sept. 10 in a high-profile Monday night game at NFC West foe San Francisco.
The Cardinals face only four teams that had winning records last season. Not one of their games is versus a team coming off a bye week. Their own bye is Week 8.
"I like the schedule," Whisenhunt said. "Certainly we've already talked about starting on Monday night, which is exciting. But our first home game is against another division opponent (Seattle).
"Last year we started with two division games, so obviously the emphasis is on getting a good start. We know a little bit about both of those opponents, which is a good thing, especially coming off a Monday night game. We don't have a lot of consecutive road games.
"Certainly, the first two games against divisional opponents and the quality of the first opponents we play will give us a little impetus to work harder in the off season. We have a stretch in the middle where we've got a number of East Coast trips or long trips but overall I like the schedule. I especially like ending up with two home games."
--RB Edgerrin James might not participate fully in this weekend's mini camp after undergoing minor knee surgery. There had been swelling periodically late last season. James has been at home in Florida during the off-season but has given coach Ken Whisenhunt regular updates on his rehab and training. The voluntary camp runs Friday through Sunday (April 13-15).
--S Hanik Milligan and FB A.J. Schable will not participate in the mini camp after undergoing knee surgeries. Schable, who alternated between DE and FB will stay at FB.
--DE Bertrand Berry will be held out of camp. He is coming off a torn triceps that caused him to miss the final six games. He also missed time at the end of 2005. His last full season, though, was a Pro Bowl run in 2004.
--LG Milford Brown, the starter at the end of last season but who initially will be replaced by Reggie Wells, will not be at mini camp. Brown is getting married.
--Rumors won't go away that the Cardinals will shift to a 3-4 defense that the Steelers ran when Whisenhunt was there -- even though he worked on the opposite side of the ball. Clancy Pendergast, who was former coach Dennis Green's defensive coordinator, was retained in the same capacity by Whisenhunt. The Cardinals ran a 4-3 under Green, but Pendergast became noted for his wild concoctions that often involved a 3-4 look. Whisenhunt said any move to a 3-4 look would be only an extension of what Pendergast and his unit have been accustomed to doing -- although they might do it more often. Whisenhunt is saying the 4-3 remains the base defense -- although he goes on to concede the defense will be "like a merger of the two" and he is now describing players like Berry and Chike Okeafor as "ends/outside linebackers."
"The defense is going to be a little bit different, scheme-wise, from what they were doing," Whisenhunt said. "Certainly there were things I was comfortable with in Pittsburgh that I want to incorporate and Clancy has been good at that." MLB Gerald Hayes and SLB Karlos Dansby now are starting inside linebackers.
--Whisenhunt is planning brief, intense mini camp workouts, during which he wants to teach players how to practice fast. Practice tempo is big with him. Two sessions of 90 minutes are planned Friday and Saturday and one Sunday during the "voluntary" gathering.
"You have to consistently preach what you want to do and once it becomes ingrained, they will do it," Whisenhunt said. "But that takes time. It's not going to be a crazy thing from a physical standpoint. A lot more of it is mental to see how much we can throw at them and how much they will learn."
--The new $200,000 weight room, and new training programs with new strength and conditioning coach John Lott -- who once worked as strength and conditioning coach of the Santa Monica Track Club, where he trained world-ranked sprinters Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell -- quickly have gained favor with the players. Off-season business has been brisk. "It's definitely a step up from what we had," said Pro Bowl SS Adrian Wilson. "We had some old-man machines in there."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Game 4? I'll be excited to play that team. We certainly feel we know a little bit about them." -- Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt, on facing Pittsburgh, his former employer, where he and new Cardinals line coach Russ Grimm were finalists for the head coaching position.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--DT Ross Kolodziej, who played for the Cardinals in 2004 and 2005 before moving on to Minnesota last season, was re-signed for one year. He played in 11 games for the Vikings, making eight tackles for the top-ranked rushing defense in the NFL. The seventh-year pro appeared in 29 games with 18 starts during his two seasons in Arizona. During his time with the Cardinals, Kolodziej made 44 tackles, four sacks, forced two fumbles and made two fumble recoveries. In 2005, Kolodziej started a career-high 14 games. He was the New York Giants seventh-round pick in 2001.
--LB Peter Sirmon, formerly of Tennessee, chose to not accept an offer from the Cardinals. The team is especially thin at linebacker, and may attempt to compensate for it by playing more 3-4 schemes and using their defensive ends as linebackers. Sirmon, an eight-year veteran, has four children and was reluctant to uproot them from the Nashville area.
1. Cornerback: 2005 first-round pick Antrel Rolle has been disappointing thus far and it has been an embarrassingly bad tag team opposite him. The Cardinals did not get an interception from a starting corner until Game 12. One member of the tag team, David Macklin, this week signed with Washington. The Cardinals have signed unrestricted free agent Roderick Hood for five years but they need at least two more corners to give them flexibility and depth. They'll likely snag one with a first-day pick, but there are none worthy of selection with their No. 5 pick overall in the first round.
2. Left tackle: Although QB Matt Leinart is a lefty, making the right tackle his blind-side protector, LT remains a critical position after starter Leonard Davis, a career underachiever, went to Dallas as an unrestricted free agent. Six years into his career, Davis, the second pick overall in 2001, has yet to make the Pro Bowl. The team signed veteran Mike Gandy, a 16-game starter at left tackle for Buffalo in 2006, but he's a better guard than tackle. If Joe Thomas is there, the Cards would have to give him strong consideration at No. 5 overall in the first round.
3. Defensive end: With former Pro Bowler Bertrand Berry working from the right side and team sacks leader Chike Okeafor from the left, this wouldn't on the surface appear to be a key need. But Berry, 30, has played only 18 games the past two seasons after his 14.5-sack Pro Bowl season in 2004. He had 12 sacks in those 18 games in 2005 and 2006 but his ability to get through a season now becomes a concern. Okeafor also is 30, although he tied his career high with 8.5 sacks. Depth is an issue. Gaines Adams would be a great fit for them at No. 5 overall in the first round.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
The Rams made a move to get younger and hopefully solidify their punting situation when they officially executed an offer sheet April 13 on Miami punter Donnie Jones. A restricted free agent, Jones was tendered at the $850,000 level, which warrants a seventh-round pick as compensation. The Dolphins have seven days, until April 20, to decide whether to match the offer or take the draft pick.
The five-year offer sheet Jones signed is worth $5.59 million and includes a $1.175 million signing bonus.
Last season, Jones averaged 42.8 yards a punt with a net of 35.7. The year before with the Dolphins, where Rams coach Scott Linehan was the offensive coordinator, Jones averaged 43.5 yards with a net of 39.3.
If the Rams end up with the 26-year-old Jones, he will replace Matt Turk, who will be 37 in June. Turk, an unrestricted free agent, averaged 43.5 yards in 2006 and had a net of 38.3, the seventh-best in the league. Ironically, Jones replaced Turk in Miami in 2005 when Turk had a groin injury and missed the entire season.
The Rams have been trying to re-sign Turk, but have apparently been unwilling to offer more than a one-year contract at the league minimum. "I'm just a little confused," Turk said, several weeks before the Rams signed Jones to the offer sheet. "Usually after a punter has a year like I had, you expect your team to step up to the plate. ... Teams get a good punter and they usually want to keep 'em."
At the NFL meeting in March, Linehan was asked about some of the frustration Turk was experiencing. "I've got other things to worry about right now," Linehan said. "I think it's best just to leave that one (alone) for right now."
Asked if Turk was still in the team's plans, Linehan said, "Yeah. He still figures in. We'd love to have him back. It's one of those things where it's got to be the right deal for both. Hopefully, it will get done soon. I don't know what will happen. But we're researching some alternatives."
--With the schedule being released for the 2006 season, the Rams have just one game in prime time. They will host the Steelers in a Dec. 20 Thursday night game on NFL network. For the first time since 1999, the Rams won't be featured on Sunday or Monday Night Football. They do open the season with two straight home games, against Carolina and San Francisco.
--Trying to find a backup to running back Steven Jackson, the Rams have reportedly expressed some interest in Corey Dillon, who was released by the Patriots. Visits of draft-eligible players were made by Antonio Pittman (Ohio State), Lorenzo Booker (Florida State), Chris Henry (Arizona), Tony Hunt (Penn State) and Brian Leonard (Rutgers).
--TE Dominique Byrd, arrested in Los Angeles on charges of driving under the influence and being an unlicensed driver, entered a not guilty plea March 28. Next is a pretrial hearing set for April 26.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "To be honest, some of these (players), we really, really like. The rest of them are a mixed bag. There's medical re-checks that we need on some players. And there were pro-day conflicts with some where we're really just getting more information on players." -- Coach Scott Linehan on how many of the 33 visits of draft-eligible players the team has a serious interest in selecting.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
1. Defensive tackle: The Rams have been trying to get this right for several years. Jimmy Kennedy was only adequate at nose tackle last season after Ryan Pickett left in free agency for Green Bay. His backup, Jason Fisk, is expected to retire and was only a stopgap anyway. Kennedy doesn't seem cut out to play on the nose, so an upgrade there is necessary.
2. Defensive end: This area was helped with the acquisition of James Hall, but he won't be healthy until training camp because of a shoulder problem and he is 30 years old. Even with a healthy Hall, the Rams have to add more quickness to their pass rush, and the draft this year is deep with quality defensive ends.
3. Wide receiver/cornerback: The front-line players at these positions are fine, but some age is creeping in, especially at wide receiver. The Rams selected cornerback Tye Hill with their first-round pick last season, and it would not be a surprise to see them dip into that area again in the opening round.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
With 10 picks, including eight in the first four rounds, the 49ers are expected to be active during the draft later this month. They might trade up, as they did a year ago, to land a second first-round selection. They might even swap some players. Either way, the 49ers have plenty of ammunition to continue adding more talent to the roster.
Coach Mike Nolan has stated repeatedly that one of his major priorities is to continue to strengthen the team's offensive line. But in free agency, the 49ers did not to address that area. Left guard Larry Allen is entering his 14th NFL season, and is likely at the end of his career. Moreover, right guard Justin Smiley and right tackle Kwame Harris are entering the final seasons of their contracts. It is unclear whether Smiley or Harris fit into the team's long-term plans.
Under Nolan and vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan, the 49ers have been very efficient about extending the contracts of players they want to retain. They have not re-signed a significant player after he hits the free-agent market.
Because the 49ers are expected again to enter next year with plenty of salary-cap space, the team would probably not be in a position to gain compensatory picks for Smiley or Harris. Therefore, if Smiley and Harris do not return for the 2008 season, the only way the 49ers would get anything in return for their two starting offensive linemen is if they traded them.
The 49ers feel good about their ability to replace Smiley and Harris in the starting lineup. Guard/center David Baas, the No. 33 overall selection in 2005, played just a handful of snaps all last season on offense. Tony Wragge took playing time from Baas at guard and center last season and bolsters the team's depth. Harris is in for a fight to hold onto his starting job this season. Adam Snyder, whom the 49ers signed through the 2011 season, is expected to win the job this season. While Harris is a solid run-blocker, Nolan has called his pass protection "soft."
The 49ers are expected to add at least one offensive lineman in the first four rounds, perhaps even with the No. 11 overall selection. If Penn State tackle Levi Brown is not taken with the first 10 picks, the 49ers will consider taking him over some of the quality defensive players who might still be available.
--The 49ers will be working with their fifth offensive coordinator in five years, but at least Jim Hostler was around for the previous two seasons. Hostler inherited the job after Norv Turner left to become Chargers head coach. "I am glad we are keeping the same offense and not having to start over again," 49ers running back Frank Gore said. "Alex (Smith) is looking good, just like the running backs and receivers."
--After spending nearly $40 million to sign such free agents as cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis, pass-rusher Tully Banta-Cain, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and receiver Ashley Lelie, the 49ers' expectations for the season have been raised. The 49ers went three seasons without an appearance on Monday Night Football. This year, the 49ers scheduled to appear twice, including the season-opening Monday against the Cardinals.
"Those games come with high expectations and a great amount of exposure which good teams handle well," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "Playing two Monday Night games against division opponents and Saturday and Sunday night games will be exciting contests for both our fans and players."
--The 49ers have a difficult stretch for five weeks from Nov. 4 to Dec. 2, as they play four of five games on the road with trips to Atlanta, Seattle, Arizona and Carolina. But then the 49ers finish with three of their final four games at home against the Vikings, Bengals and Buccaneers. "We'll face a good challenge in sustaining intensity and stamina while playing three out of our four games on the road," Nolan said. "But to follow that road stretch in front of the home fans for three out of four games in December will give us an opportunity to have a great month and close out the season on a strong note."
--The 49ers still have $13.7 million in cap room, so they would definitely be able to retain restricted free agent running back Maurice Hicks, if he were to sign an offer sheet with another team. Hicks has not made any trips and time is running out. All restricted free agents have until March 20 to sign offer sheets with teams. Hicks is currently in line to make $850,000 with a one-year tender for the 49ers.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is the first time since 2002 that the 49ers have been scheduled to play four nationally televised games, which indicates the high level of expectation from the league and from our national audience." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan on the 49ers' schedule.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
1. Wide receiver: The team's No. 3 receiver, Bryan Gilmore, played all 16 games with three starts but managed only eight catches. The 49ers cut ties with starter Antonio Bryant but signed Ashley Lelie. They need another capable receiver to give the offense some options.
2. Nose tackle: The 49ers have made the commitment to play a 3-4 defense, so they signed Ravens free agent Aubrayo Franklin to play the nose. Still, the TEAM NEEDS more players who can be an anchor at this position. Otherwise, if Franklin were unavailable, they'd be back in the same position they've been in the past couple years.
3. Defensive end: The 49ers can easily find a starter at this spot in the draft, perhaps with their first pick if Nebraska's Adam Carriker gets the call. The team figures that veteran Bryant Young will be a starter at one of the spots, but there is no clear-cut favorite for the other spot.