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Friday, May 17, 2013
Eight in the Box: Returning from injury

By Mike Sando

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at key players for each NFC West team who are coming back from injuries:

Arizona Cardinals: Levi Brown, left tackle. A torn triceps sidelined Brown last season. The Cardinals expect him to be full strength for 2013. A healthy Brown makes a happy Bruce Arians, it appears. Former coach Ken Whisenhunt was always quick to defend Brown from critics who expected more from a player drafted fifth overall. Arians, entering his first season as the Cardinals' coach, has taken the pro-Brown rhetoric to another level, calling the seventh-year tackle an "elite" player. Arizona improved its depth on the line. The team could conceivably get through the upcoming season with Nate Potter at left tackle. However, the Cardinals don't want to merely "get through" the season. They want Brown to play a key role on a line now featuring first-round pick Jonathan Cooper.

St. Louis Rams: Jake Long, left tackle. The Rams ran Long through a thorough physical examination before signing the Pro Bowl left tackle in free agency. They are banking on a return to health restoring Long to his previously dominant ways. Long, like Brown in Arizona, is coming off triceps surgery. Injuries have slowed him over the past couple seasons. The Rams think a healthy Long can stabilize their line, putting quarterback Sam Bradford at ease after three often difficult seasons for the offense. Having Long in the lineup would allow incumbent left tackle Rodger Saffold to play on the right side, upgrading two positions. That's important for the Rams in a division featuring top defenses.

San Francisco 49ers: Justin Smith, defensive end. The 49ers' defense sagged considerably once Smith suffered a partially torn triceps during a late-season game against New England. Smith, who had surgery this offseason, has worked well in tandem with outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Both were hurting late last season. The entire defense suffered as a result. The 49ers tried to address the issue in the draft by loading up on front-seven players. That made sense for the long term. More immediately, the team could use one more season of dominance from Justin Smith, one of their most important players on either side of the ball.

Seattle Seahawks: Chris Clemons, defensive end. The Seahawks' defense wasn't the same in the playoffs after Clemons suffered a torn ACL against Washington in the wild-card round. Seattle addressed the issue this offseason by adding Cliff Avril in free agency from the Detroit Lions. Avril's addition could put the Seahawks in position to bring along Clemons at a measured pace. Whatever the case, Seattle will want -- and possibly need -- Clemons near full strength for a playoff run, if not sooner. No other defensive end on the roster plays the run and pass as well as Clemons plays both. He's been a big part of Seattle's defensive success.