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Wednesday, July 21, 2010
NFC West training camp preview

By Mike Sando

Three of the four NFC West teams have listed July 30 as their reporting date for veterans.

The San Francisco 49ers' veterans report a day later and they won't be on the practice field together until Aug. 2, a reflection of coach Mike Singletary's belief in holding additional meetings to make sure players know their responsibilities ahead of time.

The NFC West had more high first-round draft choices than any other division. Signing all of those high picks in time for the start of camp could be a challenge.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

Arizona Cardinals: Will Matt Leinart look the part?

The Cardinals won't know for sure whether Leinart is their man until they see him perform in multiple regular-season games. They should have a better feel for how he's trending after only a couple weeks of training camp.

Matt Leinart
With Kurt Warner retired, Matt Leinart now assumes the role as the starting quarterback.
Quarterbacks must lead their teams. Leinart hasn't been in position to take a leadership role while deferring to Kurt Warner in recent seasons. The Cardinals' roster no longer features a veteran quarterback with a potential Hall of Fame résumé. Warner's shadow is gone. This is Leinart's chance to perform with confidence, enjoy some success and grow into a leadership role.

How Leinart performs at camp -- what he says, the way he commands the huddle, how he interacts with teammates -- will be important and instructive. This is his fourth year in coach Ken Whisenhunt's offense. No excuses.

St. Louis Rams: When does Sam Bradford take over?

Bradford's presence at camp becomes the overriding storyline the minute he signs his contract and steps onto the practice field. The Rams, a team eager to reconnect with disillusioned fans, become a much more compelling story once they install Bradford as the starting quarterback.

It's hardly a given that Bradford will make that happen during training camp. Coach Steve Spagnuolo doesn't like handing anything to rookies. The team brought along 2009 first-rounder Jason Smith slowly, but when the regular season rolled around, Smith was in the lineup.

Bradford has a chance to follow a similar timetable. It's not as though he has to beat out an all-time great to win the starting job, either. Veteran A.J. Feeley was signed as a mentor and potential interim starter, but there's no question Bradford should appear more talented right away.

San Francisco 49ers: Does Nate Clements bounce back strong?

Clements
The 49ers need Nate Clements to return to top form.
The quarterback situation will remain a prevailing storyline for the 49ers, but Alex Smith's starting status isn't really in question. The team has seen enough from him this offseason to keep him as its starter heading into the regular season, particularly with the organization putting so much emphasis on continuity.

That's why I've singled out Clements' status as a key question for training camp.

Clements struggled last season and didn't seem like himself. It was almost a relief when an injury ended his season. Clements trained on his own this offseason, so the 49ers can't be certain what they'll get from him upon his return. The secondary, already a potential weakness on a team without many glaring holes, needs Clements to regain top form.

Seattle Seahawks: Who starts at running back?

With the quarterback situation settled for now -- sorry, Charlie Whitehurst, but this is still Matt Hasselbeck's show heading into the season -- every practice and exhibition game becomes a tryout at running back.

Justin Forsett and Julius Jones are the favorites to start. Both are good all-around backs with a nose for pass protection. Jones lacks panache. Forsett became the more appealing runner last season and I suspect his talents and running style will continue to grow on coach Pete Carroll.

Leon Washington will push for playing time if his surgically repaired leg heals sufficiently. Even Quinton Ganther has a chance to get some carries. This position is pretty wide open.

HOTTEST SEATS

Cardinals: Leinart. Whisenhunt has proved he'll make changes at the most important position. There is no unconditional love at quarterback in Arizona. Even Warner had to play a certain way before Whisenhunt would go with him over Leinart as the starter heading into the 2008 season. Whisenhunt has expressed confidence and support for Leinart this offseason. Leinart must hold up his end to keep the job.

Rams: Feeley. It's only a matter of time before Bradford becomes the starter. Everyone knows what's up. That's why I'll also mention veteran strong safety James Butler in this spot. The team acquired Kevin Payne from the Chicago Bears, and Craig Dahl seemed to play pretty well last season. I'm not sure where Butler stands or how the strong safety position will shake out.

Deion Branch
A healthy Deion Branch is important for the Seahawks.
49ers: Brandon Jones. The 49ers signed Jones in free agency before they knew Michael Crabtree would be available to them in the 2009 draft. Jones then suffered a significant injury, derailing his first season in San Francisco. The team subsequently acquired Ted Ginn Jr. Jones probably needs a strong camp to earn a roster spot.

Seahawks: Deion Branch. On the surface, this was a tough call between Branch, who has had problems staying healthy, and linebacker Leroy Hill, who has had problems staying healthy and out of trouble. Both are scheduled to earn fat salaries this season, but only Hill's deal features guaranteed money. Seattle needs Branch, so he's safe as long as he's healthy, but can he stay healthy enough to be a factor?

SECRET WEAPON

Seahawks RB Leon Washington. The 49ers' Ginn might have been a candidate here as well, but Washington is more intriguing because he was a better player before suffering a ghastly leg injury while with the New York Jets last season. Washington is scheduled to make his Seahawks practice debut at training camp. If the leg heals correctly, Washington could become a player defenses must worry about.

Washington is a rarity among running backs in that he realizes he isn't an every-down back. He will not require 20 or 25 touches to get into a rhythm. He'll be fine getting limited touches.

Carroll is known to covet gadget players. Washington is more than that when healthy, but he does fill a specific role. He's definitely a secret weapon at this point because no one, including the Seahawks, can be sure what he'll offer this season. He could become a home-run threat or he might not make it out of camp.

Steven Jackson
The Rams might be wise to scale back the physical nature of camp to help protect players like Steven Jackson.
NUTCRACKERS AND JAW JACKERS

Two of the teams with defensive-minded head coaches -- the 49ers and St. Louis Rams -- held more physical camps last summer. Former Seahawks coach Jim Mora held a grueling camp from a conditioning standpoint. And while it was misleading to suggest the lone offensive-minded coach in the division ran an easier camp, I think it's fair to say Whisenhunt sometimes seemed more concerned with keeping players healthy.

Spagnuolo promoted live tackling even against prized running back Steven Jackson. Spagnuolo said he needed to get an immediate feel for the team in his first season as head coach, and that was true. But with Jackson now coming off back surgery and Spagnuolo entering his second season, the Rams might be wise to scale back the amount of contact this summer.

Singletary's famous "nutcracker" drill is expected to remain a fixture at 49ers camp even though Patrick Willis, David Baas, Michael Robinson and Tarell Brown missed time after competing in the primal exercises pitting teammate against teammate.

Players are going to get hurt no matter how coaches run their camps. That's just football. But if coaches promote additional hitting and tackling, they'll hear about it when they suffer casualties.