Summer Questions: NFC West
What's left to be learned about Cardinals, 49ers, Seahawks, Rams?
Training camps are just around the corner, with the Buffalo Bills getting things started when players report on July 18.
But while players enjoy their final weeks of vacation, front offices continue to contemplate the direction of their teams -- both for this season and the long term.
With that in mind, ESPN's NFL Nation reporters identify and answer a pressing question for every team in this week's Hot Read feature.
A: Without Washington and Dansby manning the Cardinals' two inside linebacker positions, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will spend his offseason reworking his defensive playbook.
Instead of running the same 3-4 scheme that ended last season ranked sixth overall and No. 1 against the run, the Cardinals will be forced to compensate for the loss of speed and experience. Kevin Minter was already slated to replace Dansby, who signed with Cleveland in free agency. Minter isn't as quick as Dansby, but he's stronger.
When Washington was suspended for the entire 2014 season, the Cards were left -- and still are -- looking for his replacement. But because of his speed, Washington will be tougher to replace than Dansby. Arizona will be forced to restructure its scheme in some ways.
Arizona will use more sets with three safeties -- what coach Bruce Arians calls the team's "dollar package" -- and have them help closer to the line of scrimmage. That will help the Cardinals make up for the speed lost due to Washington's suspension. The Cardinals already often run a de facto a 4-3, because their edge rushers -- usually John Abraham, Matt Shaughnessy and Sam Acho -- line up on the line either standing up or with a hand in the dirt. Expect more of that in 2014.
-- Josh Weinfuss
Q: Have the 49ers improved enough on offense to finish what they have started in the playoffs the past three seasons?
On the second day of the draft, the 49ers made a splash by trading a fourth-round pick to Buffalo for receiver Steve Johnson. Then the 49ers ended the surprising tumble of Ohio State's Carlos Hyde -- widely considered the best running back in the draft -- by choosing him with the No. 57 overall pick.
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Adding Johnson and Hyde gives coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman an assortment of riches.
Every time Kaepernick drops back to pass, he will get to choose among Johnson, who should be one of the best No. 3 receivers in the league, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. Somebody is going to be open. For good measure, the 49ers addressed another offensive hole when they grabbed speedy South Carolina receiver Bruce Ellington in the fourth round. Ellington, whom Mel Kiper called one of the steals of the draft, will take the top off defenses.
Hyde was selected because -- even with myriad passing weapons -- the 49ers remain a run-first operation. Even though he is 31 and may be entering his final season, Frank Gore still is a master in this offense. With Hyde, who could immediately inherit a big role, Gore and a healthy Marcus Lattimore, the 49ers should have no problem remaining a run-heavy offense.
There's no doubt the 49ers will compile plenty of yardage in 2014, but all that matters is if they can get those elusive final yards. If they don't, it won't be because they didn't try.
-- Bill Williamson
Q: Which Seahawks players who started in the Super Bowl could be playing their final season with the team?
But those three players received $82 million in guaranteed money, and the biggest deal is yet to come for quarterback Russell Wilson. He can renegotiate his contract at the end of the 2014 season, a new deal that likely will pay him close to $20 million a year.
All these guys are worth what the Seahawks will spend on them, but there is another price to pay on the other end. The salary-cap implications mean some veteran players will have to go.
Avril is making $7 million this year and counts $9.2 million against the cap. Wright, Smith and Maxwell account for only $2.7 million total, but they are likely to get big offers as free agents after this season.
Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner will make only $1.1 million this year but will be in position to renegotiate his deal after 2014.
Lynch and Okung are signed through 2015, but that doesn't mean they will be in Seattle in 2015. Lynch would count $9 million against the cap in 2015 and Okung would count $7.3 million. Both are star players, but the Seahawks are grooming Christine Michael as the running back of the future and Okung has to show he can stay healthy.
The Seahawks want to keep as many top players as possible, but simple math tells you some big names will be gone after 2014.
-- Terry Blount
Q: What do the Rams need from the passing game to complement a run-heavy approach in the difficult NFC West?
A: While there's little doubt that the NFL has developed a fancy for passing, Seattle proved last season that you can win a championship with a power running game and dominant defense. It's an approach the Seahawks share with San Francisco and one the Rams are hoping to emulate.
On the surface, it appears the Rams could simply de-emphasize the passing game -- like the Seahawks and 49ers -- and score enough to win games so long as the running game is strong enough. But that's not necessarily true.
Sure, the Rams would like to run the ball effectively, but they're going to have to make major strides in how they take advantage of any success they have on the ground.
The key? Taking advantage through the air by maximizing the attempts they do have, particularly on play-action passes.
The Rams were 28th in the league in passing attempts in 2013, while Seattle and San Francisco ranked 31st and 32nd, respectively. But the difference was in how they performed on those few chances.
Seattle finished second in the league in yards per attempt at 8.35 yards and San Francisco was seventh at 7.7. The Rams, meanwhile, finished 24th at 6.64 yards.
The onus falls on quarterback Sam Bradford and a young group of wideouts to take a step forward and make more plays downfield.
The Rams don't need Bradford & Co. to become the new Greatest Show on Turf, but they do need to make the most of the shots they take. In this offense, it will be about the quality, not the quantity, of pass plays.
-- Nick Wagoner
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