Last in a series of training-camp reports.
Training-camp site: Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Ariz.
Training-camp report date: July 30.
Key veteran arrivals: QB Derek Anderson, OG Alan Faneca, PK Jay Feely, OG Rex Hadnot, ILB Paris Lenon, OLB Joey Porter, FS Kerry Rhodes.
Key veteran departures: OLB Bertrand Berry, WR Anquan Boldin, ILB Karlos Dansby, OT Mike Gandy, CB Bryant McFadden, WR Sean Morey, OLB Chike Okeafor, PK Neil Rackers, FS Antrel Rolle, QB Kurt Warner.
Drafted rookies: (1) NT Dan Williams; (2) ILB Daryl Washington; (3) WR Andre Roberts; (4) OLB O'Brien Schofield; (5) QB John Skelton; (6) CB Jorrick Calvin; (7) TE Jim Dray.
Offensive overview: With Kurt Warner being replaced by Matt Leinart under center, the Cardinals are expected to run the ball a lot more. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Arizona's top pick a year ago, shapes up as the primary ballcarrier, with Tim Hightower, an excellent receiver out of the backfield, providing a consistent counterpunch. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt is a big proponent of the two-back system, which he effectively emphasized as the Steelers' offensive coordinator before coming to the desert, and former Steelers star Alan Faneca should fortify the team's run-blocking at left guard. But don't discount the Cardinals' passing game with Larry Fitzgerald, one of the league's elite pass catchers, continuing to spearhead a WR corps that has lost Anquan Boldin but still looks solid with Steve Breaston and Early Doucet taking on bigger roles.
Defensive overview: The Cardinals' defensive deficiencies were exposed in last year's playoffs with 90 points and 911 yards allowed against the Packers and Saints. It remains to be seen whether or not they will be able to fill the gaping hole in the middle of their defense created by the free-agent defection of ILB Karlos Dansby, the unit's leading tackler last season. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis employs a creative 3-4 scheme with 4-3 tendencies. Last year's unit registered 43 sacks, the sixth highest total in the league, but the outside pass rush still left a lot to be desired. It is hoped newly acquired veteran OLB Joey Porter will enable the defense to apply pressure without as much blitzing and allow more flexibility with the types of coverages used in the secondary. The defense isn't lacking in star power, with three Pro Bowlers on the roster — DT Darnell Dockett, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and SS Adrian Wilson — as well as up-and-coming DE Calais Campbell, who is widely considered to have double-digit sack potential.
Battle to watch: Keep a close eye on right guard, where Deuce Lutui, who waited until the last minute to sign his restricted free-agent tender and then showed up at camp reportedly weighing nearly 400 pounds, could be facing an uphill battle as far as keeping the starting job. Lutui, who is coming off his best season, must fend off veteran Reggie Wells, who moved to the right side after the Cardinals obtained Faneca, and free-agent addition Rex Hadnot, who started six games at right guard for the Browns in 2009.
Injury update: Injuries are not a major issue, especially on offense, where all the projected starters look to be in decent shape. On defense, Rodgers-Cromartie underwent surgery to repair his left tibia and MCL, which were injured in the playoff loss to the Saints. He was also hindered by a toe ailment at the end of this year's OTAs but is expected to be 100 percent healthy by the time training camp rolls around. Starting LILB Gerald Hayes continues to battle lower back problems that required offseason surgery and will not be ready for the start of training camp. Second-year OLBs Cody Brown and Will Davis are expected to be fully recovered from the wrist and knee injuries, respectively, that limited them as rookies (Brown missed the entire season). It's quite likely that 2010 fourth-round draft pick O'Brien Schofield could sit out his rookie campaign after tearing his ACL at the Senior Bowl.
Fantasy sleeper: TE Ben Patrick, who has proven to be a reliable red-zone target in the past, could be a surprisingly productive target for Leinart, who figures to throw more to his tight ends than Warner did. Had Patrick not started off last season with a four-game suspension for taking a banned substance, he might have been more of a fantasy force. WRs Steve Breaston, who by all accounts has looked excellent so far this offseason, and Early Doucet, who displayed promising fantasy flashes late in '09, are strong runners-up in this category.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Training-camp site: Russell Training Center, Earth City, Mo.
Training-camp report date: Rookies, July 28; Veterans, July 30.
Key veteran arrivals: OLB Bobby Carpenter, OLB Na'il Diggs, CB Kevin Dockery, QB A.J. Feeley, OG Hank Fraley, DT Chris Hovan; TE Darcy Johnson, S Kevin Payne, DT Fred Robbins.
Key veteran departures: OT Alex Barron, QB Kyle Boller, QB Marc Bulger, DT Adam Carriker, LB Paris Lenon, TE Randy McMichael, CB Jonathan Wade.
Drafted rookies: (1) QB Sam Bradford; (2) OT Rodger Saffold; (3) CB Jerome Murphy; (4) WR Mardy Gilyard; (5) TE Michael Hoomanawanui, DE Hall Davis; (6) TE Fendi Onobun, DE Eugene Sims; (7) CB Marquis Johnson, DE George Selvie, ILB Josh Hull.
Offensive overview: The Rams' offense has nowhere to go but up after managing a mere 16 touchdowns last season. Pat Shurmur is expected to again turn to the Eagles' West Coast offense as a primary model — but with more of a priority on workhorse Steven Jackson, among others, chewing up the clock via the run. Although the Rams are currently designating newly acquired veteran A.J. Feeley, who is familiar with the Eagles' system, as the starting quarterback, the smart money is on 2010 No. 1 draft pick Sam Bradford taking the reins before the end of the preseason. While Jackson is the undisputed heavyweight at running back, uncertainty abounds at wide receiver and tight end with mostly unproven players in the mix at both positions.
Defensive overview: As is the case on offense, the Rams' defense is in dire need of more playmakers on a consistent basis after ranking 31st in points allowed, 29th in total yards and tying for last with the Raiders with only eight interceptions (none by cornerbacks) in '09. An emerging nucleus entering this year's draft consisted of DE Chris Long, MLB James Laurinaitis, DT Clifton Ryan, CB Ron Bartell and safeties James Butler and O.J. Atogwe, who finally signed a new contract in late June. A space-eating defensive tackle who could stuff the run was considered a priority entering the draft, with the team seriously considering the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy at one point. But the Rams opted for new blood on the D-line courtesy of the free-agent market, with experienced veterans Fred Robbins and Chris Hovan being added to the DT rotation. Steve Spagnuolo's aggressive and creative blitz packages earned rave reviews in his tenure as the Giants' defensive coordinator before becoming the Rams' head coach. Look for the Rams to do a lot more blitzing on a regular basis.
Battles to watch: Right guard is a position of special interest on the offensive line. Third-year pro John Greco, who started the final three games at the position in '09, will be challenged by newly acquired veteran Hank Fraley and possibly Adam Goldberg, who is arguably the best "sixth man" in the business among NFL O-linemen. Also worth watching will be the battles at wide receiver, where an undisputed No. 1 pass catcher has yet to be determined, and backup running back, where the need for either holdovers Kenneth Darby and Chris Ogbonnaya or promising undrafted rookie Keith Toston to provide sufficient breathers for Jackson is imperative.
Injury update: After getting clobbered by injuries last season with an unlucky 13 players finishing the season on injured reserve, an ominous tone was set in this year's OTAs with an unusual rash of injuries on the offensive line. With starting OLG Jacob Bell already sidelined following knee surgery (he should be 100 percent in time for the regular season), the line was further decimated when starting OLT Jason Smith and probable starting ORT Rodger Saffold suffered a fractured toe and strained knee, respectively, that in effect have shut them down until training camp. In addition, fourth-year OG-C Mark Setterstrom suffered a possible season-ending left arm injury the second week in June. CB Bradley Fletcher, who was steadily improving in a starting role last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury, is ahead of schedule in his rehab but is being treated very cautiously. The AC joint on Bradford's throwing shoulder that was surgically repaired late last October appears fully healed. Jackson should be good to go when camp opens following mid-April back surgery. Same goes for Atogwe, who is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury and says he is also fully recovered from "other complications that needed to get corrected."
Fantasy sleeper: After being acquired in a trade from Atlanta, WR Laurent Robinson got off to a very impressive start last season with 13 catches for 167 yards before suffering a season-ending fractured leg and sprained ankle against the Packers at the end of September. Provided he can stay healthy, Robinson has a shot at being a pretty productive pass catcher in an offense that is expected to be a bit more wide open after shooting nothing but blanks in '09.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Training-camp site: Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Center, Santa Clara, Calif.
Training-camp report date: Rookies, July 30; Veterans, July 31.
Key veteran arrivals: QB David Carr, WR-RS Ted Ginn Jr., CB William James, OLB Travis LaBoy, CB Karl Paymah.
Key veteran departures: WR Arnaz Battle, QB Shaun Hill, OT Tony Pashos.
Drafted rookies: (1) OT Anthony Davis, OG Mike Iupati; (2) FS Taylor Mays; (3) ILB Navorro Bowman; (6) RB Anthony Dixon, TE Nate Byham, WR Kyle Williams; (7) CB Phillip Adams.
Offensive overview: Stability on offense is on the upswing with QB Alex Smith, who is entering his contract year, seemingly entrenched as the starter after having to endure an "open competition " for the job a year ago at this time. In addition, the return of Jimmy Raye snaps a string of seven years in a row with a different offensive coordinator. That said, the Niners' offensive identity remains a bit unclear. Head coach Mike Singletary and Raye have made it clearer than ever that they prefer a smashmouth run-first approach with the selection of road graders Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati in the first round of this year's draft. But the Niners' most effective formation in '09 was the "Raye-gun" — a two-WR, two-TE, one-RB set with one or both of the tight ends spread out and Smith operating out of the shotgun. If the Niners' run-first approach falters, look for the team to quickly switch to a more balanced philosophy. Frank Gore remains a solid, all-purpose featured back, and Vernon Davis emerged as one of the league's top receiving tight ends last season. After being held back as a rookie by injury and contract concerns, 2009 No. 1 pick Michael Crabtree should continue to blossom as the No. 1 wideout with the benefit of a full offseason to master his craft and learn the playbook.
Defensive overview: Under the clever direction of underrated coordinator Greg Manusky, the defense has become a team strength after holding opponents to 10 points or fewer in seven games last season and not allowing a TD in a league-best five games. The front seven is particularly strong up the middle with rock-solid Aubrayo Franklin holding down the fort at nose tackle, and third-year RILB Patrick Willis having established himself as one of the league's best all-around defenders. Not that it should be considered a weak link by any means, but the secondary lacks deep speed. Both CB Nate Clements and SS Michael Lewis have seen better days and could be challenged for playing time by younger, faster players as the season wears on.
Battle to watch: A spirited battle could be in the offing at left outside linebacker between incumbent Manny Lawson, a former first-round draft pick entering his contract year, and Ahmad Brooks, a pet project of Singletary's who came on strong as a pass rusher with five sacks in the final six games last season. If Brooks can improve his defense against the run, which is Lawson's strong suit, and stay consistently focused, he could overtake Lawson, who is a good bet to be allowed to test the free-agent waters next offseason.
Injury update: The Niners are relatively healthy on all fronts, as none of the team's projected starters appears to have any real injury concerns. The safety position seems a bit brittle, with Lewis' physical style making him susceptible to concussions and backups Reggie Smith and Curtis Taylor coming off season-ending groin and hip injuries, respectively.
Fantasy sleeper: After registering a career-high 18 TD passes in '09 despite only 10 starts, Smith should, at the very least, be considered a solid fantasy backup. If the Niners once again revert to more of a pass-oriented shotgun style, which seemed to really suit Smith's fancy last season, the former No. 1 overall pick could be much more of a fantasy force. With his sights set on a new contract, Smith certainly figures to be very motivated.
Training-camp site: Virginia Mason Athletic Center, Renton, Wash.
Training-camp report date: Rookies, July 29; Veterans, July 30.
Key veteran arrivals: TE Chris Baker, DE Chris Clemons, S Kevin Ellison; OG Ben Hamilton, DE Robert Henderson, LB Matt McCoy, WR Sean Morey, RB-RS Leon Washington, QB Charlie Whitehurst.
Key veteran departures: WR Nate Burleson, SS Deon Grant, FB Justin Griffith, DE Patrick Kerney, DL Cory Redding, OG Rob Sims, DE Darryl Tapp, QB Seneca Wallace.
Drafted rookies: (1) OT Russell Okung, FS Earl Thomas; (2) WR Golden Tate; (4) CB Walter Thurmond, DE E.J. Wilson; (5) SS Kam Chancellor; (6) TE Anthony McCoy; (7) OLB Dexter Davis, WR Jameson Konz.
Offensive overview: The Seahawks are going with a new system for the third consecutive season as new head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates are hoping to install a balanced offense with veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck at the helm. Hasselbeck could be looking over his shoulder at newcomers Charlie Whitehurst and J.P. Losman if Seattle's attack stumbles out of the gate. The Seahawks are sticking with a zone-blocking run scheme and are hoping for major improvement on the offensive line with zone-blocking guru Alex Gibbs overseeing the unit and 2010 first-round draft pick Russell Okung replacing newly retired Seahawks legend Walter Jones at left tackle. As he did at USC, look for Carroll to employ multiple backs with contrasting strengths as opposed to one primary ballcarrier. Hasselbeck is expected to operate on the move more often to avoid pressure, and look for more two-TE sets, which should result in more opportunities for TE John Carlson, who shapes up as the team's most promising receiving weapon.
Defensive overview: Carroll and coordinator Gus Bradley, one of only two returning coaches along with D-line coach Dan Quinn, plan on sticking with a 4-3 scheme with some 3-4 principles. The most noteworthy facet will be the insertion of a stand-up defensive end on the weak side. That more often than not could end up being 2009 first-round draft pick Aaron Curry, who tailed off a bit after a very impressive start to his NFL career in '09. After registering only 28 sacks last season, a big emphasis is being put on applying more pressure. The LB position will be under close scrutiny. In addition to Curry needing to step it up a notch, longtime starting MLB Lofa Tatupu must bounce back from a season-ending torn pectoral muscle, while Leroy Hill has already been suspended for the season opener and could be facing more penalties pending a domestic-violence ruling. The safety position also promises to be very interesting. 2010 first-round draft pick Earl Thomas has made a strong early impression at free safety, and 15-year veteran Lawyer Milloy appears to have at least initially claimed the starting SS job.
Battles to watch: Carroll has stressed genuine competition at every position, and that's certainly the case at both running back and wide receiver, where No. 1 jobs appear to be there for the taking entering training camp. At running back, Julius Jones, Justin Forsett, draft-weekend trade acquisition Leon Washington, free-agent addition Quinton Ganther and Louis Rankin all figure in the mix. At wide receiver, T.J. Houshmandzadeh is entrenched as the primary possession receiver, but the battle at split end couldn't be more wide open with a host of challengers in the running, led by second-round rookie Golden Tate, Deion Branch, Deon Butler and intriguing long shot Mike Williams.
Injury update: Houshmandzadeh (hernia) and Branch (knee surgery) were limited in early offseason action, but both are expected to be close to 100 percent in time for training camp. Washington is on the mend from a gruesome multiple fracture of his lower leg suffered late last October when he was still with the Jets, but he is considered well ahead of schedule in his recovery. CB Marcus Trufant, who missed the first six games last season with a disc injury and never was able to regain his pre-injury from, appears back to normal, having regained his signature makeup speed. Tatupu is being eased back into his key role as the defense's quarterback.
Fantasy sleeper: Although he is expected to battle Jones for touches in every game, Forsett has the kind of big-play ability (5.4 yards per carry in '09) as a runner, receiver and returner to develop into a surprisingly effective fantasy force. Forsett twice ran for 100 yards when Jones was out with injuries last season and could be increasingly effective both running and catching passes out of the backfield behind what figures to be a more stable offensive line.
You can learn even more about each team in the Volume XXV, Issue 6 print edition, with training-camp previews that address additional topics, such as juiciest story line, burning questions and fearless prediction for every team. The Issue 6 print edition is on sale at retail outlets, or you can buy a PDF or print copy online at PFWstore.com.