NFC West training-camp reports

Posted Aug. 15, 2011 @ 9:25 p.m.
Posted By PFW staff

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Juiciest story line: A heated battle has only just begun in the desert for the No. 1 RB job between former first-rounder Beanie Wells and second-round rookie Ryan Williams. Wells, who just turned 23, entered camp with a hardly secure hold on the starter's role over Williams, who has wasted little time showing off the skills that led the Cardinals to believe he was the best back available in the draft.

Player to watch: Second-year OLB O'Brien Schofield entered camp under the radar, but team insiders are intrigued by his pass-rush potential. With Joey Porter failing to meet expectations last season, the Cardinals remain in dire need of a consistent outside pass rusher. Schofield, who was held back initially as a rookie by a torn ACL suffered in a Senior Bowl practice, could be best-suited to fill the bill.

Strongest position: In one fell swoop, tight end went from being arguably the weakest position to the strongest position. Newcomers Todd Heap, a local product who offers a receiving dimension at the position that has been lacking for a long time, and Jeff King, a quality blocker, join third-round rookie Rob Housler and serviceable second-year pro Jim Dray. Housler is regarded by many as a younger version of Heap.

Weakest position: Outside linebacker. We already have mentioned Porter, who agreed to a pay cut, and Schofield, who has great potential but is unproven. The same goes for fourth-round rookie Sam Acho and third-year pro Will Davis, who is expected to challenge the aging Clark Haggans on the left side. Davis has some talent, but he also has had problems staying healthy.

 

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Juiciest story line: Niners Nation is waiting with bated breath to see if Alex Smith, who had been given an increasingly shaky endorsement as the starting quarterback after signing a one-year contract, can fend off second-round rookie Colin Kaepernick. Head coach Jim Harbaugh opened the door for an open competition after Kaepernick looked better than Smith in the preseason opener.

Player to watch: Will new WR Braylon Edwards continue to foster his bad-apple reputation in the Bay Area? Harbaugh is counting on fellow Michigan alum Edwards, a former Pro Bowler, to keep his nose clean and fill a badly needed void at wideout with Michael Crabtree in mothballs for the third offseason in a row. With legal issues continuing to hover over Edwards like a hungry vulture, a compelling drama could be about to unfold.

Strongest position: Vernon Davis and a slimmed-down Delanie Walker could end up providing the most dynamic one-two punch in the league at tight end. Coming off a season in which he had a career-high 16.3 yards per catch (tops among NFL tight ends), Davis is once again widely expected to be the Niners' leading receiver in an offense expected to use plenty of two-TE formations. A friskier Walker could pose a big threat in the slot.

Weakest position: Red flags stick out like a sore thumb at wide receiver. Can Crabtree come back strong from his latest foot ailment and be ready to go full tilt in Week One? Will inconsistency, dropped passes and off-the-field baggage continue to weigh down Edwards? Can Joshua Morgan avoid his penchant for breakdowns? Can Ted Ginn Jr. become more of a downfield force than he was last season, when he pretty much became a nonfactor after hurting his knee in the season opener? You get the picture. 

 

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Juiciest story line: The roster turnover that reached ridiculous heights last year (284 transactions) is ongoing. Only 16 players from the team that head coach Pete Carroll inherited in January 2010 are on the 90-man roster. With a new starting quarterback (Tarvaris Jackson), a new No. 1 wideout (Sidney Rice), a new No. 1 tight end (Zach Miller) and major changes on both lines, at linebacker and in the secondary, the Seahawks are younger, bigger and deeper. But will they be better?

Rookie to watch: Kam Chancellor isn't just stepping in at strong safety for the departed Lawyer Milloy. The 6-3, 232-pound second-year pro also has stepped into a leadership role in the secondary and on the defense. A fifth-round pick in 2010, he provides the physical presence in the secondary that Carroll needs to play his style of defense.

Strongest position: You could consider dismissing our claim that running back is the strongest position, based on the fact that Seattle ranked 31st in rushing offense last season. But it was the team's injury-depleted offensive line that was primarily responsible for that lowly ranking. There is depth and a variety of skills to choose from among Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett and Leon Washington, who is another 12 months removed from his severely broken leg and showing even more quickness and explosiveness.

Weakest position: The lack of depth at linebacker has to be a huge concern. Draft picks Malcolm Smith and K.J. Wright and rookie free agent Mike Morgan collectively constitute a huge downgrade from last year's backups, who were led by the versatile Will Herring, a free-agent signee with the Saints. In addition, SLB Aaron Curry has yet to justify his first-round billing, and reclamation project Leroy Hill must stay healthy on the weak side, as well as stay out of trouble off the field.

 

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Juiciest story line: Will the Rams' free-agent frenzy pay off? The team signed 11 free agents in a 10-day span, including five projected starters (SS Quintin Mikell, ORG Harvey Dahl, WR Mike Sims-Walker, DT Justin Bannan and WLB Zac Diles). In addition, Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood shape up as solid backups behind offensive workhorse Steven Jackson.

Player to watch: After emphatically justifying his selection as the 2010 draft's first overall pick, QB Sam Bradford will try to pick up where he left off, in a revamped offense under new coordinator Josh McDaniels that is expected to be a lot more wide-open. Last year Bradford gained only 6.0 yards per pass attempt — the lowest among starting QBs except for Carolina's Jimmy Clausen. Look for a big spike in that stat this season.

Strongest position: Dare we say running back? The lack of depth behind Pro Bowl RB Steven Jackson had been considered a major weakness for a long time. But Williams, a former No. 1 back with the Buccaneers who was very effective in spot duty behind LeGarrette Blount last season, and Norwood (career 5.3 yards per carry with the Falcons) would appear to have filled that void and provide a very attractive change of pace when Jackson needs a blow.

Weakest position: There's no denying the sudden quantity at wide receiver, with 12 contenders opening camp for six or seven WR spots. But the quality is a different story altogether. Slot machine Danny Amendola is certainly dependable, but after that, there are issues galore. Sims-Walker is a quality red-zone target (14 TD catches the past two seasons) but extremely erratic. Donnie Avery and Danario Alexander, meanwhile, have big-time injury concerns.