NFL Nation: Gary Stills
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
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.
|Jeff Mills/Icon SMI|
|Will Beanie Wells be able to avoid the injuries that plagued him in college?|
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.)
|Kyle Terada/US Presswire|
|Can Shaun Hill distinguish himself to claim the starting QB job?|
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.
|Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire|
|The Seahawks must get Matt Hasselbeck through training camp unscathed.|
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 Spencer 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.)
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)|
|Will Marc Bulger be able to regain his old form behind a revamped offensive line?|
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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Rams could conceivably part with every one of their unrestricted free agents this offseason.
They will try to re-sign cornerback Ron Bartell. They could bring back a few others. But when a new front office and new coaching staff inherit a team with five victories over two seasons, serious roster trimming tends to ensue.
The chart ranks the Rams' scheduled unrestricted free agents from oldest to youngest, with ages rounded down to the tenth. Four are at least 33 years old. Four more are at least 30. Two more -- Travis Minor and Brett Romberg -- turn 30 during the 2009 season.
Bartell is clearly the Rams' most attractive UFA candidate. His case is a tough one for the Rams.
While the team would like to retain its best young talent, the coaching staff doesn't know Bartell well enough to make informed judgments about his longterm potential. And with the market for cornerbacks drying up, Bartell might command a significant contract on the open market.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Gary Plummer of 49ers.com explains why he thinks the 49ers' defense is performing better lately. Plummer: "I think guys are being more aggressive. The players are flying around to the football and you're seeing more movement upfront. The 49ers are playing much more of the 3-4 than they were earlier in the season. There are more stunts and slants. Guys are getting into gaps. That wasn't what the scheme was earlier in the year, but it has become the scheme now, and it's become effective."
Nate Clements, writing for 49ers.com, says his thumb felt a little weird but did not hurt after having a pin removed this week.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers are about to find out whether the $2 million they invested in DeShaun Foster was money well spent.
Also from Crumpacker: Michael Robinson and Delanie Walker will return kicks Sunday even though Allen Rossum is back from injury. Expect Rossum to return punts. Kick returns are generally more violent.
Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider quotes Mike Singletary as saying Frank Gore has a better chance than Arnaz Battle at playing for the 49ers in Week 15. Also, former 49ers coach Mike Nolan used to play NFL Films music during warmups at training camp. Singletary takes another approach.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat checks in with Foster, who feels fresh after playing only sparingly in the first 13 games.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the even-keeled Foster is showing no additional excitement despite a likely increased role.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Vernon Davis has promised Singletary he'll keep his cool despite opponents' ramped-up attempts to rile him.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' Antrel Rolle has made a successful transition from cornerback to free safety. The team had trouble finding a viable free safety before Rolle made the switch.
Also from Somers: Levi Brown hopes to enjoy a Hall of Fame career amid chatter that the Cardinals should have drafted Adrian Peterson instead.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals' secondary is more of a finished product with Rolle at free safety and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback.
Also from Urban: Aaron Francisco is coming off a six-tackle game on special teams.
Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune takes a look at the Cardinals' draft class from 2007. Picking up Steven Breaston in the fifth round worked out great, but has anyone seen Buster Davis?
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says Mike Holmgren finally has the tight end he has coveted. Holmgren wishes he had John Carlson a decade ago.
Also from Farnsworth: Offensive coordinator Gil Haskell says Walter Jones was enjoying a far better season than in 2007 before a knee injury intervened.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Rams and Seahawks have suffered from turnovers on their offensive lines.
Also from O'Neil, with Jose Romero: Any second thoughts Holmgren had about retiring became irrelevant when the organization committed to Jim Mora.
Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune asks whether the Seahawks should select Jones' replacement in the first round of the 2009 draft.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggests a bad economy and a bad record have conspired for a local TV blackout Sunday.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with Holmgren, whose NFL career began when the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in 1970.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat addresses the blackout before noting that former 49ers linebacker Larry Grant would play Sunday if injury prevents special-teams leader Gary Still from playing. Also, cornerback Jason Craft left practice after his back tightened up.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Rams expect newly signed cornerback Ricky Manning to contribute right away. The team needed corner help after rookie Justin Smith landed on injured reserve. Manning's arrival precipitated the release of safety Eric Bassey, as expected.
The Rams have also agreed to terms with linebacker Gary Stills, who will help on special teams. Stills was a special-teams standout for the Ravens. The team cut him even though new head coach John Harbaugh has a special-teams background.
St. Louis lacks depth. Manning and Stills provide both. Safety Brannon Condren, claimed off waivers from Indianapolis, also helps with depth and special teams.
Elsewhere in the division this afternoon ...
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee is happy to have an English major at quarterback for the 49ers. J.T. O'Sullivan can apparently diagram plays and sentences. He is also keeping open his options (as opposed to keeping his options open). O'Sullivan, signed to a one-year deal, continues to live in a hotel.
Matt Maiocco of Instant 49ers also appreciates O'Sullivan's attention to language. Maiocco: "You're an English major?" O'Sullivan: "Was. Yeah, I graduated."
Dan Brown of 49ers Hot Read has information on the latest practice-squad signings, plus a note on guard Joe Toledo, whose Secret Service father protected former president Gerald Ford from 2002 to 2004.
Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune says Matt Leinart handled his demotion professionally. Tulumello also sees outstanding depth at the position given Brian St. Pierre's strong camp.
Chrissy Mauck of 49ers.com says recently signed linebacker Ahmad Brooks was surprised when the Bengals cut him. Brooks is wearing No. 55.
Note: The Seahawks are practicing this afternoon. We hope to make sense of their injury situation as the week progresses. Deion Branch's health is one key issue.
1:00 PM ET Indianapolis Cincinnati 1:00 PM ET Atlanta Green Bay 1:00 PM ET Cleveland New England 1:00 PM ET Oakland New York 1:00 PM ET Detroit Philadelphia 1:00 PM ET Miami Pittsburgh 1:00 PM ET Buffalo Tampa Bay 1:00 PM ET Kansas City Washington 1:00 PM ET Minnesota Baltimore 4:05 PM ET Tennessee Denver 4:25 PM ET St. Louis Arizona 4:25 PM ET New York San Diego 4:25 PM ET Seattle San Francisco 8:30 PM ET Carolina New Orleans