NFL Nation: Leonard pope


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here are a few quick thoughts from Chicago's 24-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Friday in the preseason opener:

What it means: There's still work to do on both sides of the ball. What's most important is the team came out of the game relatively injury free while still managing to get in some much-needed work.
On offense, the protection was somewhat inconsistent, which led to a sack of Jay Cutler, who also tossed an interception on the group's first play of the game.

"It was an unfortunate start," Cutler said. "I have to put the ball on Alshon’s [Jeffery] other shoulder. We had some good stuff after that; we had some bad stuff. Typical preseason game. We just have to take a look at it and get better next week."

The first team managed to gain just three first downs in three series, but there's no denying that outside of the interception, Cutler was pretty much on target with his throws.

Cutler completed 6 of 8 passes for 56 yards and finished with a passer rating of 54.2.

"Well, other than the pick we had, we moved the ball a little bit," Bears coach Marc Trestman said. "We got a few throws in. Jay made some great throws. We caught some slants in contested throwing areas. We got a few runs in. Matt [Forte], got a couple of catches, moved the ball around. Certainly didn't do what we wanted or up to our expectations. But other than the first play and the one sack -- we've got work to do."

Defensively, the bad news was the group gave up one touchdown trying to defend a short field created by Cutler's interception, combined with a pass-interference penalty on James Anderson on the next play as he tried to cover former Bears tight end Greg Olsen. The Anderson penalty put the Panthers at the Chicago 4. Three plays later, Cam Newton hit Brandon LaFell for a 3-yard touchdown at the 10:14 mark to give the home team an early lead.

The good news is the defense put points on the board with Jon Bostic's 51-yard interception return at the 6:09 mark of the first quarter. Bostic filled in for injured starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams (calf) and while it's too soon to definitively gauge his performance (that comes after film study), the showing appeared promising.

"There were a lot of things we could do better," linebacker Lance Briggs said. "There were some things we did well. When we put on the tape, we'll all evaluate the things to improve on. All in all, when you are getting turnovers in the game that is very big."

Injury update: Long-snapper Pat Mannelly suffered injured ribs when he was blindsided on a punt in the first half. The severity of that injury wasn’t immediately known. Team officials took defensive tackle Henry Melton back into the locker room in the first quarter, where he was diagnosed with a concussion. He’ll have to follow the NFL's new concussion protocol before he's allowed to practice again. It is possible Melton could be back on the field for Chicago's next practice at training camp, but unlikely given his importance to the defense. There's no need to rush him back into action.

Webb of inconsistency: J'Marcus Webb performed inconsistently in 2012 at left tackle, and his move to the right side for 2013 wasn't promising in the first preseason game.

During Chicago's third series of the night, Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson blew past Webb on the outside. In his attempt to recover, Webb overstepped outside, and Johnson cut back inside to sack Cutler along with Kawann Short.

Don't count out Webb just yet though. It's only the first preseason game.

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Second-team sloppiness: Josh McCown zipped a near perfectly thrown ball to tight end Fendi Onobun in the end zone for what should have been a touchdown in the second quarter, but he dropped the pass. On the next play, running back Armando Allen fumbled after catching a pass from McCown, with Anderson Russell recovering for Carolina at the Panthers' 12.

Onobun has struggled to catch the ball throughout the preseason, but seemed to come on in recent practices after the team had brought in Leonard Pope to compete for the job. The Bears rave about his consistency, but the truth is Onobun needs to be more consistent at catching the ball if he expects to make the 53-man roster at the end of camp.

Lopsided time of possession: Both teams played the majority of the first quarter with starters on the field on both sides of the ball, and the Panthers dominated time of possession. Carolina was 2-of-5 on third-down conversions, while the Bears finished 0-for-2 in that category. The Panthers held the ball for 9 minutes, 31 seconds in the first quarter, and the Bears held possession for 5 minutes, 29 seconds.

Bostic time? Not yet, but the rookie definitely showed why the Bears made him their second-round pick in the draft. In addition to the 51-yard interception return for a touchdown, Bostic was credited for two tackles and a pass breakup. He's probably not ready to take over D.J. Williams' starting job in the middle, but his play should definitely raise the comfort level of the coaching staff if the rookie is forced to play in a pinch.

Bostic wasn't the only rookie to show promise. Fourth-round pick Khaseem Greene came into the game during the team's third defensive series and contributed two tackles, including one for lost yardage.

Frey maintains: Second-year veteran Isaiah Frey maintained the momentum he's been riding throughout training camp practices with a solid outing in his first preseason game. Frey took over at the starting nickel corner when Kelvin Hayden suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. The youngster hasn't disappointed.

Virtually every day of practice at training camp, Frey has made a head-turning play, whether it's an interception or a pass breakup. Against the Panthers, Frey nearly picked off a Derek Anderson pass in the second quarter.

Briggs makes calls: With Brian Urlacher now out of the picture, Briggs has taken on the responsibility of making the club's defensive calls. Briggs said it went well.

"It went smooth. I got the call, called it out to teammates, they heard it, they received it, and they played the play," Briggs said.

What’s next: The Bears receive a day off on Saturday, before hitting the practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University on Sunday for the final week of training camp. Chicago hosts the San Diego Chargers on Thursday night at Soldier Field for the second game of the preseason.
Mike TomlinMichael Hickey/US PresswireMike Tomlin and the Steelers need to tap into their draft magic this year more than many.

Nearly a full month into free agency, the Steelers finally signed their first player Tuesday. It was -- yawn -- Leonard Pope.

Not excited about adding a backup tight end? Well, this is essentially a repeat of last year, when the Steelers' big free-agent signing was wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Let's face it, Steelers' free agency contains as much action as a Sarah Jessica Parker flick. Everyone knows this, and that's why no one is wringing their Terrible Towel over the inactivity.

The Steelers find players in April, not March. They hit on first-round picks every year -- at least in recent memory -- and develop undrafted prospects into starters. No one has built their team through the draft quite like the Steelers this decade. If the season started today, only one of the projected starters (safety Ryan Clark) joined the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent.

The Steelers need this remarkable track record in the draft to come through for them again. In some ways, this is the most important draft of the Mike Tomlin era. I'm not saying this is a crucial draft in terms of finding immediate starters. But the pressure is on the Steelers to find "potential" starters for the 2012 season.

The organization lost a piece of its history when it parted ways with wide receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior, defensive end Aaron Smith, nose tackle Chris Hoke and guard Chris Kemoeatu this offseason. Some have downplayed these departures because none were major contributors last season. Farrior was a part-time player, Ward was being phased out, Kemoeatu was benched and Smith and Hoke were both injured. The Steelers, though, could have used their experience as backups this season.

The loss of these veteran safety nets makes injuries a major concern. Two starters -- running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton -- are candidates to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list (and miss at least the first six games) after ACL surgeries this offseason. Tomlin has expressed concern whether right tackle Willie Colon and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders can shake their injury histories. And the Steelers have to be worried about Maurkice Pouncey's ankle, LaMarr Woodley's hamstrings and Doug Legursky's shoulder.

If Hampton is placed on the PUP, the starting nose tackle would likely be an out-of-position Ziggy Hood. If Legursky is hurt, the current top backup at guard is John Malecki. If Colon goes down, the Steelers have to turn to the often-struggling Jonathan Scott. If Sanders can't play, the third receiver would be ... well, no one right now. These are all painful scenarios for the Steelers.

This is where the draft comes into play for Pittsburgh. Taking the right college player has always kept the Steelers in the mode of reloading, not rebuilding. No one knows whom the Steelers will select with the 24th overall pick. It could be Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Georgia offensive lineman Cordy Glenn, Stanford tight end Coby Fleener or someone not even linked to Pittsburgh. Based on the Steelers' history, the only certainty is the pick will become an impact player.

[+] EnlargeBrett Keisel
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDefensive end Brett Keisel, taken in the seventh round, is just one of the Steelers' draft finds.
Since 2000, the Steelers' first-round selections have been wide receiver Plaxico Burress, Hampton, guard Kendall Simmons, safety Troy Polamalu, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, Mendenhall, Hood, Pouncey and defensive end Cameron Heyward. The only one who didn't quite live up to expectations is Mendenhall, and he is hardly a major disappointment, having led the team in rushing for the past three seasons. This great run is more amazing when you consider only two (Burress and Roethlisberger) were selected in the top half of the first round. Even the Ravens, who are known for excelling in the draft, have had two busts during this span with quarterback Kyle Boller and wide receiver Travis Taylor.

General manager Kevin Colbert, one of the underrated decision-makers in the NFL, can't explain this string of success.

"We've been fortunate," he told reporters at the NFL owners meetings. "We are capable as anybody of making a mistake. We never keep score. There's only one score that matters and that's the last game of the year."

If the Steelers had been keeping score, they would realize their success goes beyond the first round. They have come away with current starters in the second round (linebacker Woodley), third round (wide receiver Mike Wallace), fourth round (cornerback Ike Taylor), sixth round (wide receiver Antonio Brown) and seventh round (defensive end Brett Keisel). And don't forget about the undrafted finds like Legursky, right guard Ramon Foster and running back Isaac Redman.

This is why the Steelers don't have to write a $100 million check to free agents. This is why the Steelers can sign one player in the first 28 days of free agency and not sweat about it. Pittsburgh's way of business is about patience and faith. The Steelers believe in their front office to select the right college players and they believe in their coaching staff to develop them. It's a proven system that has led to five AFC North titles in 10 seasons and three trips to the Super Bowl during that span.

As players come and go, the Steelers' goals never change. Like Tomlin always preaches: "The standard is the standard."

"If you have a desire to be in this league for a length of time, you are going to roll with the punches and the ebb and flow, the evolution of the game," Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. "Thankfully, I've been in the game long enough to see a little bit of that. Those who are able to sustain success are pliable and flexible."

And the organizations that are able to sustain success are often quiet in free agency and make their most noise in the draft.
KANSAS CITY -- In the end, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn't think he had enough evidence to challenge a key play that led to a Kansas City Chiefs field goal in the fourth quarter of a 19-14 loss Sunday. I don't think the episode had a direct impact on the outcome of the game, but generally I try to bring you quick explanation of any play that sparks postgame discussion.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Pope
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelLeonard Pope lost control of the football at the end of this 33-yard reception.
The call in question: A 33-yard pass from Kyle Orton to tight end Leonard Pope with just under 13 minutes remaining in the game. On the play, which you can watch here on NFL.com, Pope lost control of the ball as he moved it his right hand to his left while running down the right sideline.

The ball trickled into the end zone and out of bounds, but officials ruled that Pope's right foot touched the sideline before he lost control. That gave the Chiefs a first down at the Packers' 3-yard line and ultimately led to a 20-yard field goal.

Replays indicated that Pope started losing control before his right foot was out of bounds. Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, who was alongside Pope at the moment, said afterward that he thought the play should have been ruled a fumble and a touchback. So did former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira.

But McCarthy said: "I thought we were right on it. I was of the opinion that the foot was out of bounds before the ball popped out. We talked about it and had a long break in between. I had plenty of time to make the decision. Based on the information, I thought it was right not to challenge."

Again, I don't think we should turn this into a bigger deal than it is. Perhaps the game would have played out differently without the additional three points the Chiefs got from the play, but you would be hard-pressed to say it cost the Packers the game. It was a debatable decision, and now you know where McCarthy was coming from.

Chiefs get first down, then TD

September, 25, 2011
9/25/11
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SAN DIEGO – With 12:34 remaining in the third quarter, the Kansas City Chiefs registered their first down of Sunday’s game.

Congrats, fellas.

The Chiefs had five possessions in the first half and didn’t gain one first down.

The inaugural first down for Week 3 occurred on Kansas City’s second offensive play of the second half when quarterback Matt Cassel hit tight end Leonard Pope for a short gain.

The first down sparked the Chiefs. Cassel then hit Dwayne Bowe for a big first down inside the Chargers’ five-yard line and then hit Bowe for a touchdown. Remarkably, the Chiefs are in this game. San Diego leads, 10-7, with plenty of time left in the third quarter.
There is a report that Kansas City tight end Tony Moeaki is about to go on the injured reserve. I am looking for more confirmation.

If Moeaki does go on the injured reserve, it will be a major blow to Kansas City’s offense. It would also be a totally avoidable injury. Moeaki was injured Thursday night at Green Bay in the Chiefs’ preseason finale. Early indications were that the injury was not serious.

But, if Moeaki did tear his ACL, it will be another reminder that veterans should not play in the fourth preseason game. Kansas City coach Todd Haley had his starters play extensively in the fourth game after he didn’t use them much early in the preseason. Haley also started camp slow because he wanted to get the team conditioned and make sure it avoided injuries after the lockout ended.

Losing Moeaki would be devastating. He had 47 catches as a rookie and gave the Chiefs’ offense a terrific dynamic. He was a favorite target of quarterback Matt Cassel. The Chiefs really don’t have another reliable pass-catcher at tight end and Leonard Pope would likely be the starter. Kansas City would need to find a tight end pretty quickly if Moeaki is going to be shelved.
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- One of the hot topics at the Kansas City Chiefs camp is if Jared Gaither will cause Branden Albert to move to right tackle from left tackle.

Albert
Albert
Gaither
Gaither
Kansas City recently signed Gaither, the former Baltimore left tackle who is coming off a back injury that kept him out all of last year, and he has been practicing behind Albert at left tackle. Yet, Gaither could move into the first team at some point. Or Gaither could move to right tackle and Albert could stay put. The team hasn’t decided what to do yet. But it’s clear they signed Gaither with hopes of him starting.

Whatever happens, Gaither said he and Albert are fine with it. After all, this isn’t their first rodeo together. Gaither and Albert were teammates at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia several years ago as high school players. Gaither said he was the right tackle and Albert was the left tackle. They are close friends.

“It doesn’t matter where we play,” Gaither said. “I just want to play. I just want to fit in wherever I can.”

If I had to guess, this how I see this scenario working: Once Gaither gets the rust off, he’ll get a chance to play left tackle and Albert will be moved. The Chiefs have been taking about moving him for some time.

Regardless of where they play, adding a healthy Gaither will be a boon for Kansas City. He insists his health is not an issue.

“I’m 100 percent healthy now,” said the 6-foot-9, 340-pound Gaither who doesn’t move like a man with a ginger back. “I’m ready to go.”

Their coach at Hargrave, Robert Prunty, is bursting with pride to have his two former players on the same line.

“What a story, can you imagine two players from the same high school line are on the same line in the NFL,” said Prunty, now an assistant at Texas Tech. “It’s amazing … Kansas City has two good players. I’m so proud of them. They are both great kids.”

Remarkably, Prunty coached three other current Kansas City players at Hargrave over the years. They are cornerback Brandon Flowers, tight end Leonard Pope and defensive tackle Jerrell Powe.

Gaither ended up in Kansas City after he visited Oakland early in training camp, but he departed without a contract. It’s been reported the Raiders didn’t like what they saw in his physical. Gaither said he wasn’t sure what the situation was, but added he is pleased the Chiefs wanted him.

If he doesn’t suffer a setback, the feelings surely will be mutual.
Kevin KolbChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesSigning Kevin Kolb signals that the Cardinals are ready to bounce back after a transition season.

Kevin Kolb's arrival from Philadelphia gives the Arizona Cardinals renewed hope at quarterback and clear direction following Kurt Warner's retirement.

It provides a fresh start after a forgettable 2010 transition season for Arizona.

So much has changed for the Cardinals since their Super Bowl appearance following the 2008 season. Other rosters around the league have turned over since then, of course, but not every team was coming off a Super Bowl appearance.

Quite a few teams have sought change. For the Cardinals, it just happened.

Warner's departure, while easily the biggest change, was far from the only one. Between five and eight starters from that Super Bowl game project as starters in 2011, depending upon how many of the team's unrestricted free agents re-sign.

When Steve Breaston left the Cardinals for Kansas City this week, drawing attention to the cumulative effect of Arizona's roster upheaval, a Seahawks fan drew parallels between Seattle's post-Super Bowl decline and the Cardinals' plight last season.

"Don't misunderstand," Ricky Frey wrote on my Facebook wall, "I'm a Hawks fan, but it seems eerily familiar to watch this happen and know what happened to Holmgren/Mora. Writing on the wall?"

Not if Kolb has anything to say about it. Acquiring a relatively young, potentially ascending quarterback puts Arizona in position to avoid the decline Seattle experienced as a Matt Hasselbeck struggled with injuries while the roster around him withered away. The NFC West remains in transition overall, and the Cardinals know it.

"It’s obviously winnable, but it’s funny to think that everybody thinks you can just step in and win it," Kolb told reporters Friday. "You’re talking about NFL football teams here. I know last year 7-9 is what won it, but it doesn’t matter. ... The door is open, we know, and we’ll be ready to kick it in when it’s time, but it’s not going to be an easy task."

Larry Fitzgerald, Levi Brown, Darnell Dockett, Adrian Wilson and the recently re-signed Lyle Sendlein started for Arizona in the Super Bowl and remain starters in 2011. Another starter from that Super Bowl game, Gerald Hayes, was released this week. Three more are becoming unrestricted free agents: Deuce Lutui, Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson.

Six Arizona starters from that game are retired or did not play last season: Mike Gandy, Warner, Edgerrin James, Terrelle Smith, Chike Okeafor and Monty Beisel. Seven more play for other teams: Reggie Wells, Leonard Pope, Anquan Boldin, Antonio Smith, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle and the recently traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Some were role players. Others were tougher to replace.

Breaston was a backup on that team, but he played extensively as the third receiver and finished the season with more than 1,000 yards.

Kolb's addition headlined a flurry of transactions the Cardinals announced Thursday and Friday.

Sendlein, safety Hamza Abdullah, cornerback Michael Adams, tackle D'Anthony Batiste, center Ben Claxton, punter Ben Graham, fullback Reagan Maui'a and tight end Stephen Spach re-signed.

Five draft choices have signed. Guard Daryn Colledge, defensive end Nick Eason, tight end Jeff King, receiver Chansi Stuckey and linebacker Stewart Bradley have signed as free agents from other teams.

Re-signing Sendlein while adding Kolb, Colledge and Bradley suggests the 2011 team is still coming together, not necessarily falling apart.
KC Joyner isn’t sure we’ll see a repeat playoff performance by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel
John Rieger/US PresswireThe Chiefs need Matt Cassel to hit more deep passes if they hope to return to the playoffs next season.
In an ESPN.com Insider piece, Joyner points to quarterback Matt Cassel’s struggles to complete long passes as a major reason why he thinks the Chiefs -- who went 10-6 and won the 2011 AFC West title after winning a grand total of 10 games in the previous three seasons combined -- could slip this season.

Here is some of what worries Joyner about Cassel: His metrics in this category range from mediocre to abysmal. His 10.2 vertical YPA (vertical being defined as passes thrown 11 or more yards downfield) ranked 20th in the league last season. His 9.0 stretch vertical YPA (defined as passes thrown 20 or more yards) was even worse, as it ranked next to last among qualifying quarterbacks (175 pass attempts needed to qualify). (Note: these numbers include attempts and yardage totals posted on pass penalties such as defensive holding, illegal contact, pass interference, etc.)

Many might come to Cassel's defense by pointing out the subpar state of the Kansas City wide receiver/tight ends corps last season. It would seem awfully difficult to put together an effective vertical passing game when mediocre pass catchers such as Chris Chambers, Terrance Copper, Verran Tucker, Leonard Pope and Tim Castille all post at least 10 targets, as was the case last season.

Some will point to the addition of former Pitt wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin in the first round of the 2011 draft as a reason for optimism here.

However, the primary counter to that statement would be that Baldwin's first-year learning curve could be steep, given that a) the lockout could prevent him from getting much practice time prior to the start of the season and b) Scouts Inc. said that he is inconsistent and erratic in many areas.

Throw in the fact that Baldwin's 15.51 yards per reception average last season ranked him 68th among FBS pass catchers and it shows just how far he has to go before he can be considered an answer to the Chiefs' vertical receiving woes.

My thoughts? Cassel’s inability to complete the deep pass is clearly an issue. That’s why Baldwin was drafted in the first round. Kansas City recognized the issue and tried to fix it. That’s what good teams do.

The key is how fast Baldwin can make a difference in this area. Joyner points out the learning curve and he’s right, but he will be given every chance to succeed.

This season surely will not be easy for Kansas City. It is now the hunted. It has a tougher schedule than it did in 2010. But, in the end, this is a balanced team with good coaching. The Chiefs appear to be headed in the right direction, regardless of potential obstacles.

How I See It: NFC West Stock Watch

November, 24, 2010
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks RB. Two lost fumbles and two dropped passes (one of them on a pass that was tough to handle) prevented Seattle's offense from exploiting the New Orleans Saints' defense any further. The Seahawks passed the ball almost at will, particularly when Mike Williams was in the game, and Lynch averaged 5.1 yards per carry. The turnovers and dropped passes hurt. Lynch was fighting for extra yardage at the expense of ball security. The team replaced him after the second fumble.

2. Troy Smith, 49ers QB. Smith took too many sacks and struggled when Tampa Bay forced him to remain in the pocket. The game plan was arguably too conservative, but Smith did not maximize opportunities. He could have used better protection and more from the running game, too. Smith threw an interception for the first time since replacing Alex Smith as a starter.

3. Ben Patrick, Cardinals TE. The Cardinals have always wanted Patrick to emerge. Instead, Patrick has faded. Arizona replaced Patrick in the starting lineup Sunday even though they opened the game with two tight ends (former Cardinal Leonard Pope even started for Kansas City). When they took over possession near midfield late in the third quarter, a holding penalty against Patrick contributed to the drive stalling. Arizona trailed 21-6 at the time. A touchdown drive would have gotten the Cardinals back into the game. Patrick previously committed a holding penalty on the Cardinals' first drive at Minnesota.

RISING

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
AP Photo/Bill NicholsMatt Hasselbeck's stock is soaring following back-to-back games of over 300 yards passing.
1. Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks QB. The quarterback's second consecutive prolific passing performance suggests he could be positioned to finish strong this season. Hasselbeck has 699 yards passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions over his last two games, helping to establish Seattle as the division favorite. No player's stock has risen so sharply in recent weeks.

2. Brandon Gibson, Rams WR. The second-year pro has 19 receptions and one touchdown over the Rams' last three games. The team needed someone to emerge after losing Mark Clayton to a season-ending knee injury. Gibson has helped fill some of the void. His leaping 13-yard touchdown grab against the Atlanta Falcons gave the Rams a 17-16 lead in the third quarter.

3. Ben Obomanu, Seahawks WR. Something has clicked between Obomanu and Hasselbeck. It's easy to forget that the two have been on the same team since 2006. Obomanu has nine catches for 147 yards and a touchdown over the last two games. He ranks tied for the team lead with three touchdowns this season. He averages 15.4 yards per reception and made a nice adjustment to grab a 42-yarder against the Saints.

Cardinals: Cutdown analysis

September, 5, 2009
9/05/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando


Biggest surprise: There weren't any big ones. Undrafted rookie linebacker Reggie Walker did beat out veteran Victor Hobson. The team kept seven receivers for now, including Lance Long, after injuries affected Early Doucet, Anquan Boldin and (previously) Steve Breaston. I would not expect the Cardinals to keep seven receivers all season, a reminder that this is the team's initial 53-man roster, not the final one.

Arizona sought to upgrade its secondary through the draft and free agency. That spelled the end for veteran safety Aaron Francisco. I thought the team might keep veteran center Melvin Fowler as insurance. Rookie returner LaRod Stephens-Howling stuck around, costing fullback Tim Castille a chance to continue with the team. Tight end Leonard Pope's demise had been on the horizon for a while and it was a bad sign when he was playing deep into the second half of the fourth exhibition game.

No-brainers: The team also released quarterback Tyler Palko, receiver Steve Sanders, receiver Ed Gant, cornerback Wilrey Fontenot, running back Chris Vincent, cornerback Jameel Dowling, fullback Reagan Maui'a, guard Trevor Canfield guard Carlton Medder, defensive end Alex Field, defensive tackle Keilen Dykes, tackle Oliver Ross, receiver Onrea Jones, defensive tackle Rodney Leisle, linebacker Chase Bullock and linebacker David Holloway. Canfield, chosen in the seventh-round, was the only 2009 draft choice released.

What's next: The heirarchy at tight end will continue to shake out, with Dominique Byrd essentially getting an extended tryout while Ben Patrick serves a four-game suspension. The team still could use a backup center with some experience.
 
  Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
  The Cardinals hope Beanie Wells can help give the team a consistent running game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Fans watching Arizona Cardinals training camp chanted Larry Fitzgerald's name as the decorated receiver approached to sign autographs.

They chanted with enough fervor to drown out Bill Davis' voice as the Cardinals' new defensive coordinator submitted to an interview nearby.

The symbolism was appropriate.

Camp Confidential: NFC West
Cardinals: Mon., Aug. 3
49ers: Wed., Aug. 5
Seahawks: Mon., Aug. 10
Rams: Thurs., Aug.13

Already a star, Fitzgerald became superstar material by setting NFL postseason records for receptions (30), receiving yards (546) and touchdowns (seven) last season.

As for that Cardinals defense? Coordinator Clancy Pendergast lost his job after coaching in the Super Bowl.

Arizona played well enough on defense at key moments for the Cardinals to make their Super Bowl run, but not well enough to hold a last-minute lead with a championship on the line. Arizona's regular-season opponents amassed 426 points, one fewer than the Cardinals' prolific offense scored, and an astounding 36 touchdown passes, nine more than any other NFL team allowed.

Davis, promoted from linebackers coach, points to scoring defense as the "only thing we talk about." He expects better play against the deep ball, a stronger pass rush and renewed commitment to technique, alignment and assignments.

"You can focus on a lot of things, but when you have our offense, which we have so much respect for and it's fun to watch, we've got to take care of our end," Davis said. "We are really emphasizing technique, alignment, eyes, assignments. It sounds like it goes back to high school, but at the end of the day, that is what makes teams great because they all have great talent."

Key questions

 
  Jeff Gross/Getty Images
  Running back Tim Hightower rushed for 399 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

1. Is Beanie Wells the answer at running back?

The Cardinals aren't much closer to knowing than when they drafted him with the 31st overall selection.

Ohio State's late graduation kept Wells from practicing with the Cardinals beyond the post-draft camp in early May. Wells' ankle injury Saturday during his first training camp practice will sideline him further. The more time Wells misses, the more likely Tim Hightower will emerge as the Week 1 starter.

"The only personal goal I've set for myself is to come in and be that guy, be the guy that -- I know we're a passing team -- that defenses will have to actually focus on the running game for the Arizona Cardinals," Wells said.

The Cardinals released Edgerrin James this offseason in part because they knew what they would get from him, and it wasn't enough to justify a $5 million salary. Though durable and reliable, James wasn't going to break long runs or scare defenses with the big play.

Wells is far more suited to provide those things if he can stay on the field.

"We want to be a little bit more balanced," Fitzgerald said. "If we can get a good running game going, the play-action is going to be big. That is going to leave single coverage for us outside and that is going to make it easy -- not easy, but easier -- for us to make plays when we are in one-on-one coverage."

2. Where will the Cardinals get their pass rush?

 Dockett
 Campbell

Twenty-three NFL teams had at least one pass-rusher with more than five sacks last season. The Cardinals were not among them. They lack an obvious candidate to break through this season.

Everyone from general manager Rod Graves to coach Ken Whisenhunt to Davis points to rookie second-round choice Cody Brown and 2008 second-rounder Calais Campbell as potential surprise contributors.

The team's most disruptive pass-rusher, Darnell Dockett, wondered earlier t
his offseason how he would fit as Davis leaned more heavily on 3-4 alignments. Dockett, who projects as the prototypical 4-3 interior pass-rusher, apparently has nothing to worry about. Davis said he re-watched every snap Dockett played over the past two seasons while designing his defense to suit the 290-pound Pro Bowler's talents. Expect Dockett to line up in new places.

"Without giving too much away," Davis said, "the bottom line is, we're excited about having Darnell in this package and we're very aware of his talents in this package."

3. How will the Cardinals handle turnover on the coaching staff?

Former offensive coordinator Todd Haley thrived on challenging even the Cardinals' best players. His sideline shouting match with Anquan Boldin in the playoffs proved as much. The intensity Haley brought to the position isn't the sort of thing a staff naturally replicates.

Players responded to Haley, and now he is gone.

Whisenhunt is excited to take back play-calling duties on offense. The team shouldn't lose much, if anything, on that front. Whisenhunt might be just as good or better.

Fitzgerald's continued emergence as a more proactive leader could help fill some of the void now that Haley is the head coach in Kansas City. Fitzgerald's mentoring of Wells alone qualifies as extraordinary. Wells lived with Fitzgerald for stretches this offseason and accompanied him to Minnesota for workouts with Cris Carter.

"I think that is special with Larry," Whisenhunt said. "I've been on some good football teams and the common thread with those teams is there was a chemistry, there was a closeness with the players. A lot of times when you have veteran players that have had success, they have a responsibility to help the younger players, and when you start to see some of your players do that, I think it's a very good indication of the closeness of your team and that chemistry that is so important."

Market watch

Boldin appears to be working on restoring his image. Always a hard worker and terrific teammate, Boldin's reputation took a hit when unhappiness with his contract affected his outlook during the playoff run last season.

 Boldin
 Fitzgerald

Boldin said nothing inflammatory upon reporting to camp, a departure from his tack last offseason. He has also been staying after practice longer than usual to sign autographs and reconnect with fans. Perhaps he realized the Cardinals weren't going to suddenly cave to his demands. Teammate Adrian Wilson's ability to command a new deal after taking a low-keyed approach might also have resonated. ...

The thought of spending another season on the bench behind Kurt Warner hasn't dragged down Matt Leinart. To the contrary, Leinart seems to be in a better place this offseason. He rededicated himself to conditioning and reported at 227 pounds, as light as he can remember weighing since high school.

"Last year was so up and down, it was like a roller-coaster," Leinart said, recalling the battle he ultimately lost to Warner. "No one knew what was going to happen. It was a lot of pressure on me to perform. This year, I just feel more at ease. I'm more comfortable with the offense. I feel great. I feel like I can go in there and play. Now it's just a matter of time, when my opportunity comes, to make the most of it."...

As much as any superstar, Fitzgerald appears obsessed with improving and driven by fear of failure. The time he spent working with Jerry Rice armed Fitzgerald with new ideas, including drills to help Fitzgerald address what he considers to be his biggest weakness, coming out of his breaks.

"I picked his brain all week," Fitzgerald said. "Every night, we sat around and talked. The thing I was so impressed with about him, even at 46 years old, his mentality, he did every single drill we did. He didn't miss a rep or anything. ... I couldn't imagine when he was 25 or 26, what he was thinking. If I can have his same mentality at 25 that he has at 46, I'll do well."

Newcomer to watch

 
  Rick Scuteri/US Presswire
  Bryant McFadden gives the Cardinals a more physical presence in the secondary.

Former Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden has already given the Cardinals an obvious physical presence in the secondary. Fitzgerald and Boldin have beaten him to the ball a few times, but McFadden's aggressive nature has stood out in camp to this point.

More broadly, McFadden hopes the Cardinals can establish the mentality that has helped make Pittsburgh so tough on defense over the years. He points to players holding one another accountable as the key. Arizona made progress in that area during its playoff run.

"In Pittsburgh, we went into a ballgame telling our offense, 'You give us 17 points, we will win,' and that wasn't out of a sense of cockiness," McFadden said. "That was from a sense of assurance and knowing we were going to get the job done, and being consistent at it, playing at a consistent level."

Observation deck

Warner might be a little stiff in his movements at times while he works through a painful rehabilitation from hip surgery. The procedure was relatively routine by NFL standards, however, and Warner should be fine for the regular season. He has started 31 consecutive games, counting playoffs, making him the most durable quarterback in the NFC West over the past two seasons. ... Davis, the defensive coordinator, retained much of the terminology from last season in an effort to smooth the transition. "And then I cleaned some of the extra verbiage out and I added some calls -- really some blitzes -- that I've had in my past so we can pressure some more and in more different ways," Davis said. ... The rapport Warner has developed with fourth receiver Jerheme Urban will make it tough for 2008 third-round choice Early Doucet to crack the rotation. Fitzgerald, Boldin and Steve Breaston are set as the top three. ... Second-year cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie continues to show the ability to contest balls that Fitzgerald would catch against most other defensive backs. ... Left tackle Mike Gandy struggled in the Super Bowl, but the Cardinals need him. An injury at that position might throw off the whole line. ... Whisenhunt appears unconcerned by the instability at tight end. He'll feel a lot better during the regular season if Stephen Spach continues his impressive rehab from knee surgery. Spach is a willing blocker and reliable player. The same cannot be said for 2006 third-round choice Leonard Pope, who jogged out a route and made a halfhearted effort to catch the ball during a drill on the first day of camp. ... Breaston was by far the most impressive player returning punts early in camp. ... The Cardinals are withholding judgment on 2007 second-round choice Alan Branch even though the nose tackle reported to camp in better shape and fared well against backups in pass-rush drills. Branch clearly has not earned the benefit of the doubt. ... Center Lyle Sendlein should be much better following shoulder surgery. ... While the Cardinals' recommitment to the ground game helped set up play-action fakes in the playoffs, the team's offensive stars aren't ready to change their offensive identity. "That was a good preview of things to come," Fitzgerald said, "but we don't want to run it too much."

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Arizona Cardinals

Division Camp Previews
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Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates
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.

 
  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?

Money men: Key players Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin and Darnell Dockett want lucrative long-term deals.

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.


Seattle Seahawks

 
  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 Cardinals' situation at tight end could get more interesting as the regular season approaches. A four-game suspension for Ben Patrick, reported by Adam Caplan of scout.com, could create opportunities for other tight ends.

Arizona is all but holding open tryouts at the position. Stephen Spach is coming off serious knee surgery. Leonard Pope arguably projects as the likely starter if Spach isn't 100 percent, although former Rams Anthony Becht and Dominique Byrd are also getting a look.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Previously: The draft and meaningful free-agent signings have passed. Trades remain possible, but less likely as training camps approach. Barring a surprise or two, what you see on NFC West rosters is pretty much what you're going to get for the 2009 season. Where are the Rams, 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals most vulnerable?

Today: I've weaved my thoughts into the conversation and posted the results below. Thanks for participating. We'll begin with the defending NFC champion Cardinals, followed by the 49ers, Seahawks and Rams.

(Read full post)

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