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NFL pre-camp previews: NFC West

Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt faces a major personnel shift entering his fourth season...
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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Today's Pre-Camp Two-a-days: NFC WEST | AFC West

 

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 55-1

Training Camp: Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Ariz., July 30

Cardinals at a glance

 
Arizona Cardinals
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The Looming Question: “Forget Kurt Warner, Antrel Rolle and Karlos Dansby for a moment. How’s this team going to adjust to life without Anquan Boldin?”

Warner, Rolle and Dansby will be missed tremendously in 2010, but Boldin brought so much to the Cardinals offense and locker room that he may actually be the offseason loss missed the most.

The franchise’s all-time leading receiver and arguably the league’s toughest receiver, Boldin was the rare NFL wide-out who earned the respect of every player — even the defenders — in the locker room. Instead of paying him and keeping him in Cardinals red for the rest of his career, Arizona traded Boldin to the Ravens in April, where he’ll play for a Super Bowl contender in 2010.

In his absence, Steve Breaston moves from the third wide receiver spot into the No. 2 role. Few doubt he’s capable of a starting gig in the league. Breaston caught 77 balls in 2008 for 1,006 yards, with many of them coming when Boldin was out for several weeks with a fractured jaw, and had his fair share of big performances in 2009. Will he be the superstar that Boldin was? No, of course not. But he’ll be solid.

The real guy to watch, though, is third-year man Early Doucet. The former LSU star could be the game’s breakout WR this season. Though he had just 17 catches in the regular season in 2009, Doucet exploded in the playoffs, catching 14 balls in two high-scoring affairs last postseason. The fantasy football geeks are drooling over the guy, listing him as the big sleeper pick in just about every publication out there. Though Breaston will be the listed No. 2 wideout on the depth chart, Doucet actually could end up being the possession guy in the passing game. At 6 feet, 215 pounds, he looks more the Boldin part than Breaston. Andre Roberts, a third-round pick out of The Citadel, could be the fastest receiver in the bunch. He’ll contribute on the outside and return kicks.

Both on the field and off, Boldin’s presence will be missed in Arizona this season.

But behind Larry Fitzgerald, there’s a very fast, very hungry, and very exciting trio of wide receivers ready to elevate their games.

Whether Matt Leinart and that shaky offensive line can elevate theirs is an entirely other issue.

Key Camp Battle: DT: Dan Williams vs. Bryan Robinson

Fans may want Williams, the prized rookie out of Tennessee, to start right away. And he very well might. He’s big enough to draw double teams in the 3-4, and his motor is nonstop. With a bigger lower half than Robinson, he fits the mold for a run-clogging NT a bit better than Robinson. But Robinson has the experience. At some point in 2010, this will be Williams’ gig. Opening week? It’s probably Robinson’s.

Early Edge: Bryan Robinson

New Veteran in Town: Kerry Rhodes, FS

Instead of opening their wallets and rewarding Antrel Rolle with roster bonuses and a new deal, the Cards let their longtime free safety walk and went for plan B, acquiring Rhodes from the Jets. It was a roller-coaster 2009 season for the onetime Jets rising star. He was benched, inserted back into the lineup and in and out of Rex Ryan’s doghouse. He comes to Arizona with a clean slate. As the free safety lining up next to All-Pro Adrian Wilson, he won’t be as versatile as Rolle. But he’s not exactly a terrible downgrade, either.

Young Gun to Watch: Daryl Washington, LB

The hope in Arizona is that Washington will be the long-term replacement for Karlos Dansby. He may have to step it up as a short-term replacement on the field, too. Paris Lenon and Gerald Hayes were penciled in as the opening-day inside linebackers, but Hayes’ recent back procedure may keep him off the field. Either way, Washington is the future at inside linebacker. That future just may have to become the present in 2010.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 140-1

Training Camp: Rams practice facility, Earth City, Mo., July 28

Rams at a glance

 
St. Louis Rams
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The Looming Question: “Is the offensive line capable of protecting a $130 million dollar backfield?”

In Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson, the Rams will have two of the highest-paid offensive players in the league lining up in the backfield. Other than those two pieces, however, the offense is made of unproven youngsters and nondescript veterans. The offensive line could be the biggest question mark of all.

Like every season with this team, health will be the most important thing for this unit. Left tackle Jason Smith, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, missed eight games last season because of a knee injury and a concussion. He struggled mightily throughout and certainly didn’t have the first-year impact of top rookie tackles Jake Long, Ryan Clady and Joe Thomas before him. He then injured a toe in the offseason. Rodger Saffold, the 33rd pick in the 2010 draft, should give Phil Trautwein some competition for the starting right tackle job in camp. That is, of course, if he’s healthy. Saffold, too, injured himself during offseason workouts. Center Jason Brown is a solid veteran, and both Adam Goldberg and Jacob Bell are above average guards. Alas, Bell, too, suffered a knee injury this offseason. Hank Fraley was brought in to provide veteran leadership, but his best years are likely behind him.

There are big “ifs” around the receiver position, the unknown players working out at tight end and across the entire defense in St. Louis. But if the offensive line isn’t at least somewhat competent and/or healthy in 2010, this team has no chance of escaping the NFC West cellar.

Key Camp Battle: OLB: Na’ll Diggs vs. David Vobora

The Rams addressed their hole at weak-side linebacker by acquiring Bobby Carpenter from Dallas. Though he never quite lived up to his first-round status in Dallas, the Rams coaches are confident the St. Louis 4-3 suits him far better than the Cowboys’ 3-4 scheme. Diggs is an NFL veteran with a ton of tread on his tires, while Vobora is a former Mr. Irrelevant who continues to find his way on to the field year in and year out. Diggs is the favorite for the gig coming into camp.

Early Edge: Na’ll Diggs

New Veteran in Town: A.J. Feeley, QB

Feeley should be working with the first team when camp opens this week, but he’s only a placeholder for Bradford. Signed to a two-year deal in March, Feeley is supposed to serve as a veteran leader and a mentor for the rookie. Though recent success stories like Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Joe Flacco in Baltimore and Mark Sanchez in New York would indicate Bradford should be starting right away, there’s a decent chance Feeley is under center in Week 1.

Young Gun to Watch: Rodger Saffold, OT

The Rams were reportedly offered several deals during the day between Thursday night’s Round 1 and Friday night’s Round 2 of the 2010 draft but turned down every one to keep the 33rd pick overall. Saffold is an athletically gifted offensive tackle whom most NFL draftniks had going in the latter half of the first round. He may start right away. And if all goes according to plan for St. Louis, he’ll serve as one of two star young offensive tackles protecting Bradford for years to come.
 

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS



Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 37-1

Training Camp: 49ers practice facility, Santa Clara, Calif., July 30

49ers at a glance

 
San Francisco 49ers
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The Looming Question: “Is this the year Alex Smith comes into his own?”

It has to be. Plain and simple, everyone has the 49ers as the NFC West favorites heading into 2010. If Smith doesn’t deliver, it’ll be viewed with great disappointment in San Francisco. Smith heads into camp as the unquestioned No.1 QB for the first time since 2007. And for the first time since he was drafted by the 49ers in 2005, he’s playing in the same offensive system for the second year in a row. Unlike some of the offenses in the past (mainly, Mike Martz’s), Smith has a handle on offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye’s game plan.

The 2005 top overall pick showed flashes of brilliance toward the end of the 2009 season, jelling with tight end Vernon Davis and finding a rhythm with 2009 first-round pick Michael Crabtree. In Josh Morgan, he has an exciting No. 2. And in newly acquired Ted Ginn Jr., Smith finally has a deep threat. The offense will certainly be a power running one first, passing offense second — made evident by the drafting of two offensive linemen with first round picks in April. Smith just needs to play within himself and make the plays he’s asked to.

The 49ers defense isn’t the 2000 Ravens and Smith isn’t Trent Dilfer, but there is some of that “game manager” stuff at play here. First and foremost, he can’t turn the ball over and make the kind of mental errors that troubled him as a first- and second-year starter in the league. It feels like decades ago when Smith found himself backing up the illustrious J.T. O’Sullivan in Martz’s offensive system. Two years later, he’s the key ingredient to getting the 49ers back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

He’s never going to be Joe Montana or Steve Young. Hell, he’s probably never going to be Jeff Garcia. With the pieces around him, he might not have to be. Being Alex Smith could be enough in 2010.

Key Camp Battle: OLB: Manny Lawson vs. Ahmad Brooks

In the Niners’ 3-4 scheme, Parys Haralson will man one outside linebacker spot, while Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes will handle the middle. Lawson is the odds-on favorite to handle the other OLB position, but there’s a lot of buzz about five-year veteran Brooks this summer. Brooks signed a contract extension this offseason and is a favorite of coach Mike Singletary. Lawson is better in coverage, Brooks the superior pass rusher.

Early Edge: Manny Lawson

New Veteran in Town: Ted Ginn Jr.. WR/KR

Ginn may not have been the guy the Dolphins hoped he would be when they drafted him ninth overall in 2007, but he’s still a playmaker who can stretch the field. The Niners’ wide receivers — though all young and promising — are not exactly speed burners. Ginn is the home run threat the offense sorely missed in 2009. He’s one of the top kick returners in the game, too. Considering they gave up next to nothing to get him, this was a can’t-lose acquisition.

Young Gun to Watch: Taylor Mays, S

A punishing hitter and three-time All-American out of USC, Mays was an expected top-10 pick heading into the 2009 college season. A down year and some evident issues in pass coverage caused him to slip until the second round of the draft. He’ll likely back up strong safety Michael Lewis to start the season. He’s too good not to find his way into the startling lineup at some point.
 

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 50-1

Training Camp: Seahawks practice facility, Renton, Wash., July 29

Seahawks at a glance

 
Seattle Seahawks
Looking for more dirt on the Seahawks? Get the inside slant, stats, scores, schedules and more scoops right here.
 


The Looming Question: “Will there be a pass rush in Seattle this season?”

The defensive line, once a strength, was downright woeful in 2009. In 2010, retired sack master Patrick Kerney will be missed, but there will be opportunities for a host of young playmakers to step it up. Chris Clemons and Nick Reed are speed rushers who can have big years at the DE spots, while DT Brandon Mebane is expected to cause some chaos from the inside. Without an established 10-plus sack man on the defensive line, though, there’s reason for concern.

The linebackers are the heart and soul of this unit. David Hawthorne had a Pro Bowl-caliber season filling in for Lofa Tatupu last season at middle linebacker and should be a force to be reckoned with at weak-side linebacker in 2010. Tatupu, healthy and a Pete Carroll guy from his days at USC, should return to his usual form. The real wild card is my guy Aaron Curry. He’ll start at strong-side linebacker, where he was a star at Wake Forest, and move to defensive end in certain situations. Leroy Hill provides depth. All four players are versatile and almost interchangeable. Are any of them bona fide pass rushing threats? Not quite.

Patrick Kerney isn’t walking into that locker room come Sept. 12 .

Without elevated play from one of these names, the Pete Carroll Era could be stuck in neutral during Year One.

Key Camp Battle: Second wide receiver: Deon Butler vs. Mike Williams vs. Golden Tate vs. Deion Branch

In four years in Seattle, Branch has yet to play a full NFL season or catch more than 53 balls. Once one of the league’s young rising stars, he’s now a 31-year-old veteran fighting to get onto the field. His injuries and age (he’s lost a step) should keep him from being the No. 2 in 2009. Butler, a second-year guy out of Penn State, is the expected starter alongside T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Tate has looked great in workouts. The rookie could be the offense’s real game-breaker out of the slot. Williams, a Pete Carroll guy from USC who’s back in the league and reportedly set to make the team, could be the wild card.

Early Edge: Deon Butler

New Veteran in Town: Lawyer Milloy, SS

A 15-year veteran, Milloy comes to Seattle as the expected starting strong safety in one of the league’s most vulnerable secondaries. Seattle’s pass defense ranked 30th in the NFL in 2009, and Earl Thomas, a rookie, will be lining up next to him at free safety. Milloy’s NFL passport is filled with stamps. In New England, he played under Pete Carroll. In Buffalo, he worked with Seattle’s new secondary coach Jerry Gray. Can he bring some of that Super Bowl experience to the Pacific Northwest? The “12th Man” fans at Qwest certainly hope so.

Young Gun to Watch: Aaron Curry, LB

The fourth overall pick of the 2009 draft, Curry looked lost at times while playing out of position as the weak-side linebacker during his rookie year. Back on the strong side in 2010, Curry should show marked improvement. No one was as high on Curry coming out of Wake Forest as I was. I watched the kid be a one-man defensive unit for Jim Grobe and think he’s got a monster sophomore season up ahead. I’ll eat crow if he doesn’t.
 

Tagged: Falcons, Browns, Broncos, Rams, Dolphins, Giants, Jets, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Ravens, Cardinals, Patrick Kerney, Bryan Robinson, Lawyer Milloy, A.J. Feeley, Anquan Boldin, Gerald Hayes, Karlos Dansby, Alex Smith, Mike Williams, Manny Lawson, Ahmad Brooks, Steve Breaston, Ted Ginn Jr., Patrick Willis, Joe Flacco, Jake Long, David Vobora, Early Doucet, Deon Butler, Jason Smith, Aaron Curry, Mark Sanchez, Earl Thomas, Golden Tate, Dan Williams, Sam Bradford, Rodger Saffold, Daryl Washington

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