NFC West: Training Camp Goals

Each NFL team goes into training camp looking to solve different positional questions. The Seahawks need to solve some offensive line issues, the Cardinals are switching defensive schemes, the Rams try to overcome those same problems with their front seven, and the 49ers know that their ascent to the next level is all about Alex Smith.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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For a while, the main question about Seattle Seahawks training camp of 2007 was not of personnel or schemes, but just exactly where they were going to conduct it. The Hawks had another year on their contract with Eastern Washington University on the other side of the state in Cheney, but when the NFL paired them with New England in a preseason game in China, it made the logistics of moving to Cheney too problematic. It was decided they'd train at their headquarters in Kirkland this season before the scheduled move to their new headquarters in Renton next summer. When the NFL canceled the China trip, it was too late to alter plans and go back to Cheney. Three of the primary questions the Seahawks need to answer as they enter camp one last time in Kirkland:

Training camp goals.

1. Making the rebuilt offensive line a productive unit.


Left tackle Walter Jones remained at Pro Bowl level, but the loss of Steve Hutchinson and several injuries left the interior of the line a patchwork of new players last season. With eight different starting combinations up front, sacks rose and rushing production plummeted. As it stands, Rob Sims and Chris Spencer (recovered from off-season shoulder surgery) are slotted to take over at left guard and center, with 37-year-old Chris Gray and Sean Locklear returning at right guard and right tackle.

Sims and Spencer showed enough in the late games last season to support the belief that they'll be the young anchors of the line in the future, but coach Mike Holmgren announced that positions on the right side of the line are open for the taking, with Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack, Ray Willis and Tom Ashworth the primary candidates to threaten the incumbents.

2. Making it so the stars can come out again.

This issue is closely related to the issue concerning the offensive line, as running back Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck are going to need an effective line if they are to rebound from injury-diminished seasons. After earning league MVP honors in 2005, Alexander missed six games with a foot fracture, while Hasselbeck was out for four games and banged up in several others with a series injuries.

Alexander was at full speed in minicamps and Hasselbeck appeared almost completely recovered from off-season surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. Hasselbeck and Holmgren talked after the season to straighten out questions of the quarterback's judgment in certain situations. A few new offensive wrinkles should help both Alexander and Hasselbeck, as Holmgren has added more pre-snap motion to the scheme.

3. Replace wide receiver Darrell Jackson's 10 touchdown receptions.

The draft weekend trade of Jackson to San Francisco created some opportunities for the remaining members of the receiving corps. Also gone is tight end Jerramy Stevens (four touchdowns). D.J. Hackett will move into the starting lineup and Deion Branch moves over to flanker, a move to exploit his quickness and dictate certain coverages. A less obvious addition is the return to health of Bobby Engram, a possession receiver with a good rapport with Hasselbeck. Marcus Pollard replaces the frustratingly inconsistent Stevens, and is expected to return to the levels of production he enjoyed in Indianapolis before slipping to just 12 catches last season with Detroit.

CAMP CALENDAR: July 26, rookies and quarterbacks report. July 28, all players report. July 29, first practice. Aug. 24, camp breaks.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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Training camp goals.

1.Settle the starting offensive line
.

The Cardinals have invested heavily in quarterback Matt Leinart and running back Edgerrin James. They didn't spend a fortune to see them maimed, so improving those who protect them is THE most important goal of training camp. Very likely the first-unit line will have only one player starting in the same position from 2006, right guard Deuce Lutui. At left guard is Reggie Wells, who moves back from right tackle, and at center free-agent pickup Al Johnson.

The real battle will be among three tackles - first-round pick Levi Brown, free-agent pickup Mike Gandy and Oliver Ross, who is coming off two disappointing injury-plagued years. More than likely Gandy will land at left tackle, Brown at right and Ross will back them both. All three are being cross-trained on each side, however, and any combination remains possible. The Cardinals skill-position talent is as good as any but a year ago James didn't have a 100-yard game during the first three months of the season and Leinart suffered injuries to each shoulder on sacks, missing the finale. New line coach Russ Grimm is not going to tolerate that. The front will have a new look and, undoubtedly, a new outlook.

2. Get comfortable with the 3-4 defense.

For years, the Cardinals operated from a base 4-3 alignment, although like all teams they used odd fronts in various schemes. Now, the base defense changes to take advantage of the athleticism of players like Darnell Dockett, who moves from "under" tackle to end, and Karlos Dansby, who goes from strong side to inside linebacker to allow him to run and hit. The change also covers for the team's woeful lack of linebackers. That's a seeming contradiction considering there is one more linebacker on the field in a 3-4, but former ends are going to man the outside linebacking positions. The Cardinals had an abundance of down linemen to allow them to make the move.

Coaches believe they will not lose the pass-rushing skills of Bertrand Berry, who is attempting to come back from two injury-plagued seasons following a Pro Bowl 2004, and Chike Okeafor, the team sacks leader last year. Both players move from end to outside linebacker. It's a big change for the Cardinals, who two seasons ago were in the NFL top 10 in defense before a 2006 skid sent them to the lower one-third in the face of widespread injuries. But under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, a holdover from Dennis Green's staff, the players have become accustomed to weekly change in Pendergast's wild schemes, looks and groupings. Pendergast unwittingly prepared them for this move.

3. Learn how an NFL team prepares and wins.

| This one is easier said than done. Consider the history, the culture of the Cardinals. They have had only four winning records in a quarter century (5-4 in 1982, 8-7 in 1983, 9-7 in 1984, 9-7 in 1996). They have won one playoff game in a half century. They haven't won as many as 10 games in 30 seasons (10-4, 1976). But the roster has been upgraded. Most of the players are from winning pedigrees in college or at other pro stops.

They have a second-year, state-of-the-art facility, where the Super Bowl will be played in February. It is sold out for the season, largely to ticket holders hoping to claim Super Bowl tickets in a lottery.
And they have a staff full of coaches who won a Super Bowl in Pittsburgh only a couple of years ago. Coach Ken Whisenhunt's first training camp will be about setting a tone, creating a mind-set and paddling out of the NFL backwater.

CAMP CALENDAR: July 27: Team reports to Flagstaff, Ariz. July 29: First practice at Northern Arizona University, 1-3 p.m. Aug. 1 and 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.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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Training camp goals

1. Solidify the inside of the defensive line.


The Rams are planning on first-round pick Adam Carriker being a starter at nose tackle from the first day of camp, or whenever he signs. His play will be instrumental in how much the Rams improve in run defense this season. But Carriker might not be used only on the nose. Throughout the summer, the defense will experiment with left and right tackles, and it is hoped Carriker can also provide a pass-rush presence inside. Two other rookies, Clifton Ryan and Keith Jackson, will compete for roster spots. Coaches want 33-year-old La'Roi Glover to be on the field only 25-30 snaps this season, and they are counting on Claude Wroten to ascend. But Wroten has to put behind him a recent arrest for misdemeanor property damage and get back on the good side of a coaching staff that has talked him up throughout the off-season.

2. Find out how much center Andy McCollum has left in the tank.


McCollum, who missed most of the 2006 season after injuring his knee in the season opener, made an amazing recovery, especially considering he's 37 years old. Richie Incognito played most of the season at center, but he moved to right guard and Brett Romberg was the center for the final three games. Romberg did a solid job, but it's unknown if he can hold up for an entire season. McCollum has the experience and smarts, and is expected to win the job from Romberg provided his knee withstands the rigors of contact. Romberg will also have to hold off rookie fifth-round pick Dustin Fry, who also has the versatility to play guard.

3. Establish Will Witherspoon as the unquestioned middle linebacker.


Only on the outside of the organization are there those that believe the Rams should have pursued a bigger middle linebacker and moved Witherspoon to an outside position. However, coupled with Pisa Tinoisamoa, having Witherspoon on the outside would result in the base defense featuring two weak-side linebackers. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, in his second season with the Rams, is adamant that Witherspoon will be even better in his second season in the system and as a fulltime middleman. Being in the middle allows Witherspoon to roam from sideline to sideline making plays, rather than being limited to one side of the field. He will need help from the team's defensive tackles to keep blockers away, as well as having a healthy Tinoisamoa, who missed the final five games last season and played injured in many of the games he did play.

CAMP CALENDAR: Players report July 26 to the Russell Athletic Training Center (formerly Rams Park), with the first day of practice July 27. As in 2006, there will be alternating days of two practices, then one, until camp officially breaks Aug. 19.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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Training camp goals.

1. Get quarterback Alex Smith to take the next step.


Smith showed dramatic improvement in his second season after an abysmal rookie season. New offensive coordinator Jim Hostler is adding some of the West Coast offense principles that Smith learned from Mike McCarthy as a rookie to go along with the vertical attack that Norv Turner installed last season. Smith has a strong running game to take away a lot of the pressure that a No. 1 overall pick might feel. The club has also done a good job of adding talent around him. An improved corps of wideouts should enable him to improve his passing numbers, and tight end Vernon Davis appears ready to become a big-time target.

Smith appears to have all the physical tools, as well as a good head on his shoulders. He is well-respected in the locker room. At age 23, he might still be the youngest starting quarterback in the league when the season begins. The biggest keys for Smith - and major points of emphasis during the offseason program - are to improve on his productivity inside the red zone and on third downs. The 49ers ranked near the bottom of the league in both statistical categories last season.

2. Find someone to pressure the quarterback.


The 49ers' pass defense has regularly been among the worst in the NFL over the past decade. While the 49ers spent handsomely to lure cornerback Nate Clements to the club as a free agent, the 49ers don't have anyone on the roster with similar credentials to rush the passer. The 49ers signed outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain as a free agent, as coach Mike Nolan and new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky implement a 3-4 scheme on a full-time basis. Banta-Cain is coming off a career-best 5.5 sacks with the Patriots last season. The 49ers will also hope to get some pass rush from second-year players Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson, as well as veteran defensive lineman Bryant Young.

3. Settle the offensive line.


The 49ers feel good about their depth on the offensive line, which means they are expecting some competition in training camp. Returning starters Justin Smiley (right guard) and Kwame Harris (right tackle) are entering the final seasons of their contracts, and they are expected to receive stiff competition in training camp from David Baas and rookie Joe Staley, respectively. Also, third-year player Adam Snyder appears to be a future starter. He'll be ready to take over when future Hall-of-Fame guard Larry Allen is ready to step away.

CAMP CALENDAR: The full squad reports together on July 28, with the first practice scheduled for the following day at the club's Santa Clara, Calif., practice facility. Most practices are closed to the general public, but the club has scheduled 10 free open sessions. (Tickets are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis via www.49ers.com.) There will be an intra-squad, controlled scrimmage on Saturday, Aug. 4. Camp breaks Aug. 22.

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