- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Training camp site: Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff, Ariz.)
Campfires: Coach Ken Whisenhunt isn't afraid to make first-round draft choices earn their starting jobs. He benched Matt Leinart coming out of camp last season, then made talented rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wait until near midseason before becoming a full-time starter. The trend could continue this summer as rookie first-round choice Beanie Wells practices with the Cardinals for the first time.
Wells projects as the long-term replacement for Edgerrin James at running back, but Ohio State's late graduation prevented him from participating in minicamps and organized team activities. That means the adjustment period for Wells could take a little longer. Expect Tim Hightower to enter camp as the tentative starter.
Meanwhile, the situation at tight end remains a mystery. Arizona is carrying six tight ends on its roster, one behind the league high. Ben Patrick, the player coaches have tried to develop as a player versatile enough to help as a receiver and blocker, faces a four-game suspension to start the season. That could open the door for Anthony Becht, Leonard Pope or Stephen Spach to seize the starting job. I don't see a clear favorite, particularly with Patrick serving a suspension and Spach coming off knee surgery.
Camp will be a downer if ... Wells doesn't immediately prove he can avoid the long list of injuries that affected him in college. Arizona needs a more dynamic runner to run its offense the way Whisenhunt and offensive line coach/running game coordinator Russ Grimm want to run it. Wells has the physical ability to provide that missing element. Can he stay on the field and will he fight through some of the ailments that await every running back in the NFL?
The preferred scenario would include Wells breaking a few long runs during the preseason, setting up the play-action passing game that worked so well for Arizona when the team showed more balance in the playoffs last season.
Camp will be a success if ... the reconfigured coaching staff takes control of the team and helps Arizona build on the momentum from its Super Bowl season.
Whisenhunt has stressed continuity during the first two years of his tenure. He kept the same five starters on the offensive line even though right guard Deuce Lutui had penalty problems and center Lyle Sendlein sometimes struggled while playing through a shoulder injury. While the approach worked, continuity wasn't an option for the coaching staff once the Chiefs hired offensive coordinator Todd Haley head coach.
Whisenhunt's decision to fire quarterbacks coach Jeff Rutledge and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast shook up the staff considerably more.
Warner will miss the rapport he enjoyed with Haley. The two appeared inseparable at times and the relationship seemed to benefit Warner on the field. Can the newly configured staff fill the void or otherwise find ways to keep Warner and the offense rolling?
Franchise player rules will force Dansby to wait, and he should be content "settling" for a one-year franchise deal worth nearly $9.7 million. The volatile Dockett has also committed to letting his play do the talking, a good sign for the team.
While Boldin put aside his concerns to produce last season, his situation bears monitoring. Another year without a new contract probably equates to a higher frustration level. Boldin, generally the consummate pro, might have a harder time dealing with the situation -- particularly if the team fails to meet expectations.
San Francisco 49ers
Training camp site: 49ers headquarters (Santa Clara, Calif.)
Campfires: The 49ers have quite a few position battles for a team that finished strong and feels good about its chances for contending within the division.
The quarterback race will rightfully command the most attention. Coach Mike Singletary said the players will know whether Shaun Hill or Alex Smith should be the starter, at which point Singletary will merely affirm what they know. That means Smith's status as the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2005 will not afford him any advantage in the competition. Hill's 7-3 record as the 49ers' starter over the last two seasons gives him the edge.
On defense, Dashon Goldson would have to flop or suffer another injury for the older and less athletic Mark Roman to take back his job at free safety. Dre Bly has the edge over Tarell Brown at right corner. Kentwan Balmer, the 49ers' first-round choice in 2008, could push for a starting job at left defensive end.
Camp will be a downer if ... both quarterbacks flounder and veteran Damon Huard appears to be the best option. Unlikely? Perhaps. But the scenario isn't as laughable as it should be. Neither Hill nor Smith distinguished himself during the competition a year ago. Even if Mike Martz was playing favorites when he installed J.T. O'Sullivan as the starter, the fact remains that O'Sullivan enjoyed the strongest preseason of the three.
The new offensive system should better suit Hill in particular, and the 49ers have declared this quarterback race a two-man affair, ruling out Huard as a contender. Still, after years of backing up Trent Green, Tom Brady and Dan Marino, Huard wound up starting three of the first five games in Kansas City last season when the unaccomplished Brodie Croyle and Tyler Thigpen were his primary competitors.
Camp will be a success if ... Hill validates his 7-3 record as the 49ers' starter, right tackle Marvel Smith makes it through training camp healthy and the push toward a full-time 3-4 defense validates Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson as promising pass-rushers.
Hitting on all three of those might be asking a bit much, but getting two of them right might be enough, particularly if the 49ers feel good about the quarterback situation.
On the receiving end: It's a little surprising to see the 49ers emerge with their deepest group of receivers in years after committing to Singletary's smashmouth approach. The change to Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye was all about making smarter use of the players general manager Scot McCloughan and former coach Mike Nolan had acquired in recent years.
That meant -- and still means -- forging an identity in the ground game. Yet, while receivers Michael Crabtree, Isaac Bruce, Brandon Jones and Josh Morgan will not be battling Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for Pro Bowl berths this season, they do give the 49ers better potential than they've enjoyed recently.
Singletary's smashmouth roots should not and likely will not dissuade the 49ers from making frequent use of those receivers.
Training camp site: Seahawks headquarters (Renton, Wash.)
Campfires: The Seahawks weren't going to pretend that first-round choice Aaron Curry would have to prove himself in camp to earn a starting job. They put the fourth overall choice in the lineup from the beginning. No suspense there.
Most positions in Seattle appear settled. The situation at receiver should produce intrigue with Nate Burleson, Deion Branch and rookie burner Deon Butler fighting to get on the field with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and tight end John Carlson. Injuries will probably help sort out the situation. Burleson is returning from ACL surgery. Branch is entering his first full season since undergoing his own ACL procedure.
Don't be surprised if rookie second-round choice Max Unger pushes for playing time somewhere in the interior of the offensive line. He projects as the long-term starter at center if Chris Spencer plays out his contract and leaves following this season. If S
pencer holds the job, Unger figures to find his way onto the field in one of the guard spots, perhaps this year.
Camp will be a downer if ... quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's back injury flares up at any point along the way. Hasselbeck and the Seahawks say the quarterback has long since overcome the problems that helped limit him to seven starts last season. They didn't know the extent of the problem a year ago when they assured fans that Hasselbeck would be fine for the regular season. The issue is under control now, they say, but the very nature of back injuries should raise at least some concern heading into a pivotal season for the organization.
Camp will be a success if ... Hasselbeck, left tackle Walter Jones and defensive end Patrick Kerney put to rest concerns about their long-term health. Beyond the obvious injury storylines, this camp becomes a success for Seattle if Curry validates coach Jim Mora's opinion that the linebacker's pass-rushing abilities are indeed far stronger than anticipated on draft day.
Seattle badly needs to restore its pass rush to better compete against the Cardinals' passing game in a broader effort to overtake Arizona in the division. Kerney is the key, but the Seahawks are also counting on pressure from other sources: Brandon Mebane, Cory Redding, Lawrence Jackson, Darryl Tapp and possibly Leroy Hill. Significant pass-rush help from Curry would offset Julian Peterson's departure while making it easier for the Seahawks to justify having drafted a linebacker fourth overall.
Learning curve: By all accounts, the two years Mora spent in the background watching Mike Holmgren operate should leave him better prepared to handle his second head-coaching job. The way Holmgren handled everything from players to the media differed quite a bit from the more freewheeling approach Mora displayed with the Falcons.
Lessons learned? Yes, but it will be interesting to see how the Seahawks' leadership -- operating without Holmgren for the first time since 1998 -- will respond under pressure if things go wrong early.
St. Louis Rams
Training camp site: Rams Park (Earth City, Mo.)
Campfires: The Rams need to figure out what they have at receiver, linebacker and left cornerback after overhauling their roster.
Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Drew Bennett, Trent Green, Anthony Becht, Corey Chavous, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Brian Leonard, Gary Stills, Jason Craft, Ricky Manning, Fakhir Brown, La'Roi Glover, Dane Looker, Travis Minor, Dante Hall, Nick Leckey and Brett Romberg were among the former starters and role players cast aside in the makeover.
None was irreplaceable. Getting rid of them was the easy part. Identifying and developing adequate replacements will take time.
Camp will be a downer if ... top draft choices Jason Smith and James Laurinaitis aren't ready to contribute right away. Coach Steve Spagnuolo has taken it slowly with both rookies, but he likely will not have that luxury once the regular season gets going. Smith and Laurinaitis probably must play and play well for the Rams to avoid trouble.
Laurinaitis' development is critical because the Rams appear so thin at linebacker after releasing Tinoisamoa. Even if Laurinaitis plays well, the Rams' depth at linebacker could betray them.
Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Marc Bulger finds comfort behind an upgraded offensive line. Bulger can be a highly accurate passer when opposing defensive linemen aren't pounding the confidence out of him. The player who topped 4,300 yards passing with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions three years ago hasn't resembled even remotely the scared soul seen under center for the Rams too often over the last two seasons.
The Rams' should start to regain some swagger on the line with 320-pounder Jason Brown taking over at center and the personably intense Smith at tackle. Right guard Richie Incognito won't be the only starter with some snarl, in other words. That should help provide improved protection for Bulger and leadership for the offense.
Fantasy spin: Running back Steven Jackson should not hurt for opportunities now that the Rams have landed a 320-pound center (Brown, free agent from the Ravens) and a 258-pound fullback (Mike Karney, late of the Saints). The Rams will try to develop their young receivers, but rarely should any of them represent a more formidable option than Jackson. And if he gets some luck with injuries, look out.