NFC West: 2011 back to work FYI

Cardinals back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: It's tough going this deep into an offseason without a starting quarterback. Any veteran the team acquires through trade or free agency will have relatively little time to learn the offense and adjust to his teammates. The Cardinals were so shaky at the position last season, however, that any significant upgrade behind center will energize the team. Moving quickly to land a quarterback will improve the Cardinals' readiness. But with key offensive linemen unsigned and a new defensive coordinator in place, the Cardinals face difficulties.

Biggest challenge: Ray Horton, the new defensive coordinator, will have relatively little time to establish the aggressive mentality he promised to instill when the Cardinals hired him. He'll also have an abbreviated window to install schematic changes and get players accustomed to his approach. Horton is the Cardinals' third defensive coordinator in four seasons, so continuity is an issue. Horton was already going to face challenges as a first-time coordinator. The lockout magnifies those challenges.

Who will Arizona target at quarterback? Reports strongly suggest Arizona will pursue Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb right away when the signing period opens. Speculation suggests a deal for Kolb was already in the works. What if it's not that simple? If the Eagles want too much in return and if acquiring another veteran such as Denver's Kyle Orton isn't a realistic option, then what? The Cardinals' prospects in 2011 rest on the team's ability to upgrade the position. Extending Larry Fitzgerald's contract will also be tougher without a viable quarterback.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Guard Deuce Lutui, defensive lineman Alan Branch, defensive lineman Gabe Watson, receiver Steve Breaston, center Lyle Sendlein.

49ers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The 49ers lag in this area for a team that has maintained relatively strong roster continuity over the past few seasons. San Francisco has a new head coach, three new coordinators (counting special teams) and one of the younger offensive lineups in the NFL. The 49ers needed minicamps and the offseason program as much as any team. The lockout was costlier for them. It's a tribute to Jim Harbaugh, his staff and the players if they open the season strong.

Biggest challenge: Getting Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and the offense synced up quickly will be tough. Smith, who plans to re-sign with the team once free agency opens, did all he could in meeting with Harbaugh before the lockout and leading player-organized workouts. Smith's smarts and team-first attitude made him an ideal candidate to communicate Harbaugh's plans to the players attending workouts. That all sounds great in June and July, but it's doubtful the impact will carry the team far. This is a tough situation for a first-time NFL head coach with an unaccomplished quarterback.

Don't forget the defense: Smith's leadership during player-organized workouts drew considerable attention. Meanwhile, Patrick Willis and the defense spent the offseason without access to playbooks. Their new coordinator, Vic Fangio, is known for favoring veterans with the experience needed to run his complex scheme. The 49ers will need their veterans on defense to learn quickly.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Quarterback Alex Smith, linebacker Takeo Spikes, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, outside linebacker Manny Lawson, tackle Barry Sims, safety Dashon Goldson, defensive end Ray McDonald, offensive lineman David Baas, outside linebacker Travis LaBoy, offensive lineman Tony Wragge.

Seahawks' back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: No team in the NFC West faces more roster-related work than Seattle once the league reopens for business. The team is entering the second season of a massive roster overhaul. More than two dozen players are headed for free agency, in many cases by design. The quarterback situation remains in flux. The lockout prevented the Seahawks from continuing their trend for draft-day trades under coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. That avenue for improvement was lost for good. Seattle will need some time to work through personnel changes.

Biggest challenge: The Seahawks could have a hard time upgrading their quarterback situation. Matt Hasselbeck appears on his way out, with Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson as a possible addition via free agency, according to ESPN's John Clayton. Charlie Whitehurst is unproven. Kevin Kolb could be too expensive for Seattle's tastes in terms of trade compensation and contract demands. I don't get the sense the Seahawks are all that concerned. They're building for the long term. My sense is that Carroll doesn't value quarterbacks the way he might if his background were on offense. Still, addressing the position is important. The task presents challenges.

What surprises await on the injury front? Seattle has suffered more than its share of injuries in recent seasons. A few top contributors, including left tackle Russell Okung and pass-rusher Chris Clemons, played through painful conditions last season. The lockout has prevented players from training and rehabbing at team facilities. Injury-related news updates have been scarce. Will the Seahawks be as healthy as they need to be given the state of their roster?

Key players without contracts for 2011: Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, kicker Olindo Mare, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, tackle Sean Locklear, center Chris Spencer, cornerback Kelly Jennings, safety Lawyer Milloy, defensive end Raheem Brock, defensive tackle Craig Terrill, fullback Michael Robinson.

Rams back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Rams must acquire or develop starters at right guard, free safety, defensive tackle, outside linebacker, wide receiver and tight end. They need depth at running back. They've got work ahead, but most of the heavy lifting has been done. The Rams return their quarterback and most of their offensive line while enjoying continuity on defense through head coach Steve Spagnuolo and key players in the front seven. That gives St. Louis a head start on its division rivals even though the Rams will be breaking in a new offensive coordinator.

Biggest challenge: Pat Shurmur's surprise departure as offensive coordinator threw up a hurdle heading into the Rams' second season with Sam Bradford behind center. The lockout has prevented new coordinator Josh McDaniels from getting Bradford up to speed as quickly as the team would have liked. The situation at wide receiver remains unsettled. The most promising tight end on the team, Lance Kendricks, faces a learning curve as a rookie. Those factors create challenges as the Rams seek to build on Bradford's promising rookie season. There's no need to panic, however.

Ownership impact: The Rams still haven't gone through a free-agent signing period since Stan Kroenke became majority owner. There's no indication the Rams will become significantly more aggressive in free agency now that Kroenke has given them an owner with deeper pockets. They do have the wherewithal, however, and the Rams should have some flexibility from a salary-cap standpoint. None of the team's own free agents will command big money this offseason.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Receiver Mark Clayton, defensive tackle Clifton Ryan, tight end Daniel Fells, tight end Billy Bajema, guard Adam Goldberg, defensive tackle Gary Gibson, receiver Laurent Robinson.

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