As training camp approaches, we take a look at the players on each team who will be most heavily scrutinized. The list contains a fair amount of quarterbacks — no stunner there — but we tried to highlight as many non-QBs as we could. The players highlighted range from rookies to veterans with 10 or more years of experience.
In the eighth of an eight-part series, we look at the NFC West from the 2011 order of finish:
49ers wide receivers
Yes, we’ve cheated and picked an entire position. But it’s apt: The Niners lacked explosion in the passing game last season, and they have overhauled their receivers as much as any NFL team this offseason. Enter veterans Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and first-rounder A.J. Jenkins to join holdover Michael Crabtree, who could be singled out for not having lived up to his top-10 draft hype to date. Moss, they say, still can fly, and Manningham has shown a flair for big plays going back to his college days. But there still remain a lot of unknowns in what must be a more proficient passing attack.
Others worth mentioning: RB Frank Gore, OLB Aldon Smith.
Cardinals QB Kevin Kolb
No other player on the roster carries the pressure that Kolb does to perform this season. His starting job already has been challenged by John Skelton, and the two will battle in training camp to be the top dog. Throw into the mix rookie Ryan Lindley, who had four productive college seasons, and Kolb knows it’s time to step up. He has been affected by concussions and confidence, and the Cardinals’ pass protection isn’t always stout, but Kolb also has been maddeningly inconsistent. He’s being paid like a top starting quarterback, and the weapons are there to make this a dangerous offense.
Others worth mentioning: OT Bobby Massie, NT Dan Williams.
Seahawks WR Sidney Rice
Seattle might be known as the place where good receivers go to die, but Rice — still a kid at 26 years old in Week One — has a chance to be special. Again. His breakout season of 2010 almost catapulted the Vikings into the Super Bowl, and the combination of a strong run game and (we assume) improved QB play could have Rice matching that level of performance. He must stay healthy; he suffered a concussion last season, but surgeries on both shoulders are said to have Rice back to being in really good shape. The Seahawks have a nice group of wideouts, but the key is getting Rice back to an elite level.
Others worth mentioning: DE Bruce Irvin, QBs Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson.
Rams QB Sam Bradford
No division offers as much uncertainty at quarterback as the NFC West does, and no team has more questions and obstacles to overcome than the Rams. Starting fresh under Jeff Fisher and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer could help, but Bradford must shed the china-doll stigma that has followed him since Oklahoma. He’s plenty tough, playing through shoulder injuries in college and finger and ankle ailments during what was a mentally trying second pro season in St. Louis. But now he has to stay healthy, build a rapport with an unproven group of receivers and trust an offensive line that sometimes has let him down. There’s a lot on young Mr. Bradford’s plate in this crucial season for his development.
Others worth mentioning: CB Janoris Jenkins, DE Robert Quinn.