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AN EARLY LOOK AT THE NFC WEST
(First published on football.com May,20th 2008)
ARIZONA CARDINALS- The Arizona Cardinals are hoping that stability equals improvement. For only the second time since the club moved to Arizona in 1988, the offensive line is returning intact. Last year, Matt Leinart was the starting quarterback to start the season, but when Leinart went out for the season in game five; Kurt Warner became the new starter. It is a new season and Leinart is slated once again to be the starter, despite his off-season extra-curricular activities. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is looking for a new contract, but states, “I don’t want to be traded” despite an earlier report from his agent Drew Rosenhaus. Boldin isn’t the only player with ongoing contract concerns. Defensive lineman Darnell Dockett has expressed his feelings to the team about his contract. Linebacker Karlos Dansby is concentrating on football right now after signing a one-year franchise tender, but Dansby isn’t very optimistic that a long-term deal can be reached anytime soon. Antrel Rolle has moved from cornerback to free safety to replace the departed Terrence Holt. The outside linebacker position could have some heated competition come training camp. Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor return this season, but veteran newcomers Travis LaBoy and Clark Haggans will prove they were brought in for a reason. Second year fullback Tim Castille “bulked-up” during the off-season, and may be ready to assume the starting role, but veteran Terrelle Smith isn’t likely to just sit back and watch it happen. Kicker Neil Rackers had offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia, which may have led to his struggles in 2007, and is expected to be 1oo% heading into training camp.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS- The competition for the starting quarterback job is apparently a three-person race between Alex Smith, Shaun Hill, and J.T. O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan was a backup QB in Detroit, where Mike Martz was the offensive coordinator. Martz is now the offensive coordinator for the 49ers, and is implementing a new, complex offense, one that J.T. O’Sullivan is familiar with, giving him an advantage over the other two quarterbacks vying for the start. San Francisco will see new faces at the receiver position this year, Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson. Running back DeShaun Foster was signed to a one-year deal giving Frank Gore a reliable back up. Rookie defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer was taken in the first round and figures to be the replacement for Bryant Young who retired. Balmer is versatile enough, that he could challenge for a starting spot against veterans Aubrayo Franklin and Isaac Sopoaga. Offensive rookie Chilo Rachal is a strong possibility to start at left guard for retired Larry Allen. Free agent acquisition Justin Smith is expected to fill in and start at defensive end. The 49ers also brought in cornerback Allen Rossum, who could assume the kick return duties if receiver Michael Lewis is not given the chance.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS- The Seahawks begin the post-Alexander era in Seattle. Seattle signed Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett in the off-season, mix that with Maurice Morris and you have a position battle. Julius Jones is the expected starter for the Seahawks, but Morris and Duckett will fight in the trenches to earn the starting nod. By selecting defensive end Lawrence Jackson in the first round, Seattle addressed a need to add depth to the line. Jackson could challenge Daryl Tapp for the starting job at right end. Even if he doesn’t secure a starting spot, Jackson is likely to see considerable playing time in the rotation. Another area addressed was tight end, selecting John Carlson of Notre Dame in the second round. This could end up being a highly contested position battle among Carlson, free agent acquisition Jeb Putzier, and Will Heller. Seattle brought back a familiar face at linebacker in D.D. Lewis, and resigning Lance Laury, addressing the need of departed special teams’ players Kevin Bentley and Niko Koutouvides. Lewis and Laury will also provide depth along with Wesley Mallard and rookies Will Herring and David Hawthorne. The Seahawks brought in veteran kicker Olindo Mare to replace Josh Brown, who left for NFC West rival St Louis. Kicker Brandon Coutu was selected in the seventh round of the draft, and should have a decent opportunity to challenge Mare for the starting job. Free agent offensive guard Mike Wahl is looking to make an immediate impact for the Seahawks, and is being compared to former guard Steve Hutchinson. The wide receiver position may end up being a distraction more than anything. With D.J. Hackett flying east to the Panthers, and a possible contract dispute with Bobby Engram, the Seahawks inexperience is likely to cause a problem. If Deion Branch is not ready to go from his knee injury, and Engram decides to sit out over his contract, that opens the door for players such as Ben Obamanu, Courtney Taylor, Logan Payne, and Jordan Kent to step into a starting role. By drafting long-snapper Tyler Schmitt, Seattle may have found the answer to a problem area that existed last season.
ST LOUIS RAMS- Energy and excitement are the words surrounding the Rams this season. After finishing in the cellar of the NFC West in 2007, St Louis is poised to turn things around. New offensive coordinator Al Saunders returns to the Rams, after serving with the team from 1999-2000. Although there are minimal players left from Sunders previous stint, it remains to be seen if the growing pains will be too painful. Veteran quarterback Trent Green will provide ample back up to Marc Bulger. The Rams are recovering from a myriad of injuries suffered from last season, and hope to have most of those fully recovered. Rookie defensive end Chris Long is expected to plug into the starting role and become an immediate pass-rushing force. Defensive end James Hall had been released by the Rams, but was resigned. Linebackers Quinton Culberson and Chris Draft will battle for the starting spot left open by Brandon Chillar. Although Draft is the favorite, Culberson is in the mix and will be given plenty of opportunities to win the job. Another contest that should be highly contested is between centers Brett Romberg and converted guard Mark Setterstrom. Receiver Isaac Bruce has sadly departed opening the door for Drew Bennett to replace him. With Tory Holt and Drew Bennett seemingly set as the top duo, the depth needs to fall into place. Rookie Donnie Avery is looking forward to make an immediate impact, but standing in the way are Dane Looker, Reche Caldwell, and Dante Hall who have the experience. Longtime veteran kicker Jeff Wilkins has retired and lured Josh Brown from the rival Seahawks.