EARTH CITY, Mo. -- While the discussion of Tony Dungy's comments that he would not have made defensive end Michael Sam the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL continued from Monday afternoon into Tuesday, Sam was reporting to the St. Louis Rams for his first NFL training camp.

Sam was busy making sure he passed his conditioning test so he could begin practice with teammates. He was busy weighing in at 257 pounds, down 13 from what he weighed at the end of organized team activities. He was busy preparing himself to work at right defensive end for the first time since his arrival in St. Louis.

With all of that going on around him, Sam was wholly unconcerned about Dungy's words. Asked early Tuesday evening what he thought about Dungy's statements to the Tampa Tribune, Sam pointed to the obvious and promptly took the high road.

"Thank God he wasn't the St. Louis Rams coach," Sam said, laughing. "I have a lot of respect for Coach Dungy and like everyone in America, everyone is entitled to their own opinions."

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Michael Sam
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images"Thank God he wasn't the St. Louis Rams coach," Michael Sam said, laughing. "I have a lot of respect for Coach [Tony] Dungy and like everyone in America, everyone is entitled to their own opinions."
As Sam reported for training camp with the rest of his rookie teammates Monday evening and went through a practice Tuesday night, the only opinions carrying any freight in his mind were the ones belonging to coach Jeff Fisher, general manager Les Snead and the rest of their respective staffs.

In other words, while the word "distraction" has become something of a catch-all buzzword as a means for avoiding details, Sam seems to have a good handle on the only focus he should have at this time of year: making the Rams' roster.

It's a focus that Sam expressed when the Rams drafted him with the 249th overall selection in the May draft. He has mostly stuck to that focus, with the exception of the three-day firestorm created by a potential documentary series on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Sam has made it clear that he would not have made a public pronouncement about his sexuality if he didn't think he could handle some of the negative things that might be said about him afterward.

"I knew what I was coming into," Sam said the night the Rams drafted him. "Are there going to be idiots out there who say some stupid stuff? Yeah. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about the guy next to me, the guy in front of me. I have got to prove myself. I have got to make sure the vets know I’m a team player and I love this game and I want to show the coaches that I’m a team player and a hard-working guy. What I do on the field will determine how great Michael Sam will be."

That time has finally, mercifully arrived.

One practice into his first training camp with no veterans, no pads and no oppressive heat to deal with, Sam's biggest task Tuesday night was adjusting to playing on the right side. He'd spent all of the spring playing on the left and was admittedly rusty when he switched sides for Tuesday's workout.

Of course, as a seventh-round pick working to make the roster on one of the league's deepest defensive lines, Sam is truly in "the more you can do" mode. For that same reason, Sam made it a point to come back for training camp lighter and faster so he can contribute on special teams coverage units.

Although he spent his summer doing a lot of traveling from Los Angeles to New York to Kansas City, Sam arranged for a trainer to work with him in each city. In the process, he trimmed 13 pounds off from his previous weight of 270.

The ability to contribute on special teams could give Sam a leg up for a potential ninth roster spot on the defensive line since there aren't many linemen who can run down kicks. The Rams have kept nine on the defensive line in each of the past two years. There are eight spots that seem all but sewn up this season, and the ninth one could come down to a battle between Sam and undrafted rookies such as Ethan Westbrooks.

"My focus is on making this team," Sam said. "I don't really care what people come up and tell me. My job is to make this team. That's my No. 1 priority."
I have returned from taking two weeks off. Here are some thoughts on some San Francisco 49ers' news that transpired while I was away:

Sherman blasts Crabtree again: Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman continued to take verbal shots at 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree. Sherman famously took shots at Crabtree after deflecting a Colin Kaepernick pass in the end zone intended for Crabtree in the final seconds of the NFC title game in January. It was intercepted, sealing the game for Seattle. As he did the first time, Crabtree took the high road after Sherman's recent comments. Crabtree is taking the right approach. He will get a chance to shut up Sherman on the field. If he succeeds, I get the feeling the football-watching world, outside of the Pacific Northwest, will celebrate along with him.

49ers look at young linebacker: The 49ers worked out linebacker Darius Lipford. The North Carolina product went undrafted in the supplemental draft. He reportedly is going to work out for three more teams. The fact the 49ers haven't signed him likely means they aren't overly interested. Although things can always change. So, until Lipford signs elsewhere, it is always a possibility he ends up with the 49ers.

Staley signs deal: Before I went on vacation, I reported that a new deal for Joe Staley was still in the works. He is now signed through 2019 with impact on this year's salary cap. Staley turns 30 this year and is set to be a 49er for life. Of course, the extension from Staley could be looked at as a message to guard Alex Boone and tight end Vernon Davis. They are holding out for more money. The 49ers rewarded Staley after he spent the offseason with the team despite being underpaid.

Aldon Smith sentenced: The star pass-rusher was sentenced to 11 days work release and had three felony gun charges knocked down to misdemeanors. His legal issues are now out of the way. The big question remains if the NFL will suspend Smith. With training camp starting this week, it is reasonable to think the 49ers will learn about any league discipline fairly soon.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are Pro Bowl selections and plenty of all-everything teams revealed in every NFL season. Some players are named, some are snubbed and the discussion on all fronts can be lively.

And then there's what Donny Moore does. Moore, who laughingly calls himself a "former sandwich artist who has had the greatest of opportunities, is a 36-year-old guy whose decisions are debated, sifted through and often even used as verbal barbs in not only living rooms across the country, but in locker rooms around the NFL."

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
EA SportsIt comes as little surprise that Peyton Manning is ranked as the top quarterback in "Madden NFL 15."
That's because Moore has the final say about player rankings in "Madden," the wildly popular Electronic Arts video game. The 26th edition -- "Madden NFL 15" -- is set for release on Aug. 26.

And when it comes to the Denver Broncos' game, players will soon discover what NFL defenses did last season -- because quarterback Peyton Manning is at the top of the heap. Manning, who threw for an NFL single-season record 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards last season on the way to this fifth MVP award, is tied for the game's top rating for quarterbacks at 98.

Moore gave Manning and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers a 98 rating -- "it's a 0 to 99 system, there are no 100 ratings in the game," Moore said. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees checked in at 96; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was rated at 93.

And while the debate rages around the league about whether Russell Wilson is a top-10 quarterback, Moore said he will be in this year's "Madden," as Wilson was also given a 93 rating.

Calculating Manning's rating, Moore said, was simply a matter of balancing past production, plenty of advanced metrics on the statistical side, and giving Manning the eye test.

"You're constantly looking at it, having your eyes on everything," Moore said. "It's not only what you see, relative to his peers, relative to the league, but what the metrics tell you as well. A guy like Peyton has such a long track record, from our standpoint it's going to take a lot to push that rating down any. A younger player's rating may be far more volatile ... But we update through the season and through the playoffs."

Moore said Manning's rating in the gaming world represents a complete bounce-back from the quarterback's return from spinal fusion surgery that caused him to miss the 2011 season, which are also the only games Manning has missed in his career. Since signing with the Broncos in 2012, Manning has started every game -- 32 regular-season games to go with four playoff games, with 92 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions.

"There were a lot of unknowns there when he came back, but the feeling was it would affect his throw power," Moore said. "We dropped him down to 84, 85 range, got back up to 89 in 'Madden 13,' I believe. And then to where he is now where we just looked at everything, throw power, awareness, all of those things."

Whether it be on Twitter or in person, Moore said plenty of NFL players have approached him about a ratings adjustment, and that speed tends to be the flashpoint from time to time.

"What usually happens is a big play will happen on Sunday and fans will start tweeting the player, 'Oh man, you did great, you need to talk to 'Madden' to get your rating up,' " Moore said. "And then they'll start following me and we'll go back and forth ... Guys always want to talk about their ratings, they're sort of 80 percent joking, 20 percent serious."

Moore said earlier this year, as he sat "in my cubicle at the office," he could hear Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, on site for a visit, questioning other staffers about how to get his speed rating adjusted. Moore said he then stepped over to meet the quarterback "and I look down and he's got a walking boot on because he just had surgery, so I was kind of going back and forth with him about how a walking boot would affect his speed."

"But in the end we want to just get it right," Moore said. "Whether it's a quarterback everybody knows like Peyton or a long snapper, we want to be right. We strive for perfection, we don't get it, but we always strive for it. But as far as Peyton, I've got a good feeling we're right on that one."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It's pretty common to see a rookie who has never played a game show up on the list of the NFL's best-selling jerseys before training camp even begins. Many college players simply carry the name-value and fan following that makes proving themselves in the NFL unimportant when it comes to purchasing a jersey.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonMichael Sam's No. 96 Rams jersey ranks No. 6 in jersey sales from April 1 to July 17.
You don't, however, see rookie seventh-round draft picks on the list before they've ever taken a snap. But as we already knew, St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam is clearly not your run-of-the-mill seventh-round draft choice. As the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL, Sam has already become one of the most well-known seventh-round picks of all time.

If you needed any further evidence, simply take a look at the list of the top 10 in jersey sales on from April 1 to July 17. Sam's No. 96 jersey checks in at No. 6 on the list, behind established NFL stars such as Denver's Peyton Manning and Seattle's Richard Sherman and ahead of the future Hall of Fame quarterback trio of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Heady company, for sure.

Sam is also one of only two defensive players -- Sherman the other -- to make the top 10. Clearly, Sam's historic announcement and pursuit of a roster spot in St. Louis has transcended his draft position and made his jersey a hot commodity among fans.

If nothing else, Sam's jersey is already considered something of a collector's item. It will likely continue to sell well, but it's still a piece of memorabilia that could have a short shelf life. There aren't many fans who buy jerseys of a player who is far from a lock to make his team's roster.

That's much different than the situation in Cleveland, where quarterback Johnny Manziel is No. 1 on the list in no small part because of his larger-than-life personality and the profile he brings into the league as a first-round pick. Manziel is a lock to make the roster and the only question surrounding his status in that regard is whether he'll be the opening-day starter.

Sam doesn't enjoy the same luxury as he pursues a spot on the team's initial 53-man roster with the possibility that those No. 96 jerseys could be out of date only months after they were purchased.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy said he would not have selected University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam if he was still coaching.

Sam, who is gay, was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the May draft.

"I wouldn't have taken him," Dungy told the Tampa Tribune. "Not because I don't believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn't want to deal with all of it. It's not going to be totally smooth ... things will happen."

Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said on the draft's final day that Indianapolis considered selecting Sam with one of their picks.

Sam's situation may end up being a distraction inside the locker room and for the franchise, but the Rams deserve credit for being willing to select him.

Coach Chuck Pagano and punter Pat McAfee were two of the many Colts who earlier this year said they would have no problem with Sam's orientation inside their locker room.

"I love the environment we've created, the culture we've created," Pagano said earlier this year. "I think we have an outstanding locker room. The Colts never have and never will discriminate based on sexual orientation. We look at the player. We'll evaluate him just like we evaluate everybody else. If he can help our team and help us win football games, he'll be more than welcome."
There was a lot Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer did well last season, his first in head coach Bruce Arians’ offense.

But there was still plenty he could work on, according to ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski.

In the latest rendition of Jaworski’s quarterback big board Insider, Palmer dropped one spot to 20th because “he still made too many mistakes for a veteran quarterback.” Jaworski also wrote that “there were some games where I didn’t know where he was throwing the football.”

It seems to be a fair ranking for Palmer, who threw 22 interceptions compared to 24 touchdowns, when taking his entire body of work last season into consideration. Palmer was once considered an elite quarterback, but he’s not in that category anymore and that’s apparent in Jaws’ ranking. Palmer was rated behind quarterbacks such as Tony Romo, Andy Dalton, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford -- all quarterbacks Palmer can pass, in my opinion, with a better 2014 showing.

Jaworski criticized Palmer’s decision-making, which was under siege throughout the season, especially through the first eight games.

He struggled -- along with his teammates -- during the first half adjusting to Arians’ scheme. Palmer improved in the second half, along with his decision-making, throwing just eight interceptions to 14 touchdowns, and became a top-6 quarterback during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

One stat that Jaws noted was Palmer’s nine third-down interceptions, second most in the NFL and tops in the NFC. Palmer also struggled on first down, throwing eight interceptions, the second most in the NFC. Both need to improve for Palmer to move up the board and for Arizona to move into the playoffs.

But for all his criticism of Palmer, Jaws also talked about Palmer’s strengths, writing Palmer “remains a tremendous anticipation thrower and has a really good feel for the passing game. He will throw it into man coverage and give his guys a chance.” One observation by Jaws stood out. He said even though Palmer made too many mistakes last season, he knew where to go with the football. The mistakes were a product of the learning curve with Arians’ offense. The kinks should have been ironed out during the offseason and the progress building off of 2013 is expected to start immediately. Training camp will be a true indication if either happened.

Jaws believes Palmer will improve in his second year under Arians. It’s a fair and expected assessment.
For the second consecutive season, St. Louis Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar has made headlines for the wrong reasons near the start of training camp.

Reports from The Associated Press indicate that Dunbar was involved in a fight outside a Miami nightclub early Sunday morning. Dunbar got into an altercation with NBA free-agent forward Donte Greene outside Dream Nightclub, according to Miami Beach Police Detective Vivian Thayer, who said both men were arrested and will face charges of battery and disorderly conduct.

With further details unavailable at this time, this could be nothing deeper than a fight between a couple of athletes. But in Dunbar's case, it's not this incident that is alarming so much as the unsightly pattern that has begun to form when it comes to him and off-field incidents near the start of training camp.

The Rams have seemingly made it through the scariest part of the offseason without any serious issues, and while a fight doesn't really qualify, it does add another negative mark on Dunbar's record as the team opens camp this week.

Last year, Dunbar entered camp as a presumptive starter at outside linebacker, but those plans took a U-turn when the NFL suspended him four games for violation of its policy against performance-enhancing substances. A clearly irritated coach Jeff Fisher made it clear he was unhappy with Dunbar, and instead of keeping him on the roster during the suspension, the Rams released him and signed veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon.

Dunbar re-signed for the rest of the 2013 season after serving the suspension but came back to reduced snaps with Alec Ogletree handling three-down duty alongside James Laurinaitis. Dunbar finished with 39 tackles in 12 games and 10 starts.

Despite the underwhelming season, in March the Rams brought Dunbar back on a two-year deal worth up to $3.5 million with hopes that reuniting him with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who coached Dunbar in New Orleans, could get him back on track.

While more information needs to be gathered and the legal process still has to play out, Dunbar is obviously not doing himself any favors as he attempts to hold down the starting job opposite Ogletree. As it stands, Dunbar is projected to remain the starter, but second-year linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong has impressed coaches enough to get more opportunities to contribute and was already poised to push for an expanded role in 2014.

Whether or not Dunbar faces any further punishment from the team or the league, it's fair to wonder if Armstrong could now get an even closer look when camp opens.
Examining the Seattle Seahawks' roster:


The first two spots are locked with Wilson and Jackson as his backup, but the third QB spot is a battle between Pryor and B.J. Daniels. Pryor has the clear advantage due to his size and speed.


The question is whether Lynch will get fewer carries to keep him fresh, and if so, will Michael or Turbin be the one who gets more carries as the backup. Most are betting on Michael, but Turbin may surprise people this season.


Coleman and Ware are converted running backs, and the Seahawks may see Ware as more of a running back now. The only true fullback is rookie Kiero Small (5-foot-8, 250 pounds), who could beat out Ware but will likely start the season on the practice squad.


Four of these spots are set -- Harvin, Baldwin, Kearse and Richardson, the rookie speedster from Colorado. But nine players are vying for the final two spots. The odd man out for me is veteran Sidney Rice, but he could beat out Lockette or Norwood, the rookie from Alabama. Placing Norwood on the practice squad would be a big risk.


McCoy returns after missing all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon. One of the two rookie tight ends, Rashaun Allen or Chase Dixon, will make the practice squad.


The one starting battle is at right tackle between Bowie and rookie Britt. Rookie tackles Garry Gilliam and Nate Isles, along with rookie guard Bronson Irwin, have a chance to make the practice squad.


This will be a great battle to watch. A surprise cut is coming and it could be Jordan Hill, the second-year player from Penn State. He may be fighting second-year DT Jesse Williams for a spot, but Williams has to prove he’s healthy. Signing Kevin Williams before minicamp was a major addition to the rotation at defensive tackle. Scruggs’ return after missing last season will help the depth at defensive end. The Seahawks are high on UCLA rookie defensive end Marsh, who also can play inside. Rookie Jimmy Staten probably goes to the practice squad, and free-agent rookie Jackson Jeffcoat of Texas is the man who could sneak in here with a great preseason showing.


Irvin is coming off hip surgery, but he was probably going to lose his spot as the starting strongside linebacker anyway. Depending on his recovery, he could start the year on IR. Toomer has been the biggest surprise of offseason workouts with his stellar play. Pierre-Louis is a super-fast rookie who will contribute a lot on special teams this season. O'Brien Schofield is on the bubble as an outside linebacker/defensive end.


Another tough cut is coming here. Phillip Adams looked good, and he can return kicks. Lane will start as the nickelback and Shead can play corner and safety. Simon, who missed his rookie year last season with injuries, has impressed everyone in the offseason workouts.


Johnson probably is the first backup at both safety spots. Rookie Eric Pinkins is a safety the Seahawks are trying to convert to cornerback, but he could be headed to the practice squad. USC rookie Dion Bailey is on the bubble for making the roster, as is Parks. But Parks has shined in offseason workouts.


These spots are set unless an injury occurs.

St. Louis Rams' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
Examining the St. Louis Rams' roster:

(Note: WR Stedman Bailey is expected to make the team but is suspended for the first four games of the season and will not count on the initial 53-man roster)

Bradford and Hill are locks. Gilbert is likely competing against the roster number more so than Austin Davis for a potential third quarterback spot. The guess here is the Rams will keep a third after keeping just two entering 2013.


The Rams went heavy on running backs last year, keeping five, but with Pead handling more special teams duties, it could make Chase Reynolds expendable and allow them to keep an extra body elsewhere.


With Bailey suspended the first four weeks, the Rams could take a longer look at another wideout for the first quarter of the season, but Bailey plus the five listed here seem to be in pretty good shape. It will be more interesting to see how this group shakes out in terms of playing time.


The first three are probably pretty safe, but the Rams could have an intriguing competition for a potential fourth tight end if they opt to keep one. Cunningham intrigues them, but undrafted rookie Alex Bayer showed some promise in the spring and could surprise.


The Rams could easily go heavy here and keep another lineman or even two as they did in 2013. The first seven listed here should be in good shape, but beyond that, the competition is wide open. Players like Sean Hooey, Brandon Washington, Mitchell Van Dyk and Demetrius Rhaney could be heard from before preseason is finished.


The first eight listed are all but locks barring injury, but the Rams have kept a ninth defensive lineman each of the past two seasons. The battle for that spot should be fierce with Sam trying to fend off the likes of Sammy Brown, Matt Conrath and undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks. Sam's ability to emerge on special teams will likely determine his fate.


Don't be surprised if the final tally here looks different than the above. Beyond the first four listed, there could be plenty of room for change, including the potential for a veteran to provide depth. Bates is a strong special teams player and should stick, but Steward will face plenty of competition from an eager group of undrafted rookies.


Jenkins, Johnson and Joyner should be set, but there could be some good battles in camp for the spots behind that trio. McGee has a year under his belt and an inherent advantage that goes with it, but he will face competition from the likes of Gaines, Greg Reid and Marcus Roberson. It also wouldn't surprise if the Rams kept a sixth cornerback instead of a fifth safety.


There is plenty to sort out at this position with Alexander, Daniels and rookie Christian Bryant coming off injury. Bryant didn't participate in the spring, so he is difficult to project at this point. Davis should stick for his special-teams contribution, but there is little guaranteed here.


It would take a serious injury to disturb this strong trio.
Examining the San Francisco 49ers' roster:


Because of heavy competition elsewhere, the 49ers will likely only carry two quarterbacks. They finished last season that way. The competition will be to see if undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner can take McLeod Bethel-Thompson's spot on the practice squad.


The fact that the 49ers drafted Hyde in the second round and Lattimore is healthy means some tough decisions will have to be made. Hunter is too valuable to let go. That means 2012 second-round pick LaMichael James will have difficulty making the roster.


The 49ers are so much deeper here this year than last. That means they will likely have to keep six receivers. Lloyd may look good and Patton has too much potential to give up on. That means it could be tough for Kassim Osgood to make it even though he is a special teams cog.


If Davis ends his holdout, I can't see the 49ers keeping more than three tight ends because of the glut at receiver. Unless Garrett Celek has a big camp, he may be in trouble. Carrier intrigues the 49ers because of his size and speed.


Assuming Boone ends his holdout, this is a pretty nice group of eight players. It's improved from last year. A solid veteran like Adam Snyder and a promising youngster like Ryan Seymour will have trouble making the team.


This is another power spot. It's deep. Players like Jerod-Eddie and Dial are too valuable to cut. Ramsey has looked good and I have a hunch the 49ers may like him too much to expose him to the waiver wire. That means Demarcus Dobbs could be in trouble.


Most teams carry six linebackers but the 49ers are stacked here, especially with NaVorro Bowman out for about half the season. Because fifth-round pick Lynch is promising he should make the roster. Dan Skuta is an excellent player, but there might not be any room for him. I could see him being one of those later-summer Trent Baalke trade specials because he has value.


This unit is in flux, but I see Johnson making it. Don't be surprised if there is some in-camp jockeying as the 49ers look for the best mix.


Ward, the 49ers' first-round pick, will play nickel cornerback as a rookie, but projects long term as a safety. Ventrone and Spillman should stick because they are great on special teams. Craig Dahl could be in trouble.


This group is set and it's excellent.
Examining the Arizona Cardinals' roster:


Carson Palmer
Drew Stanton
Logan Thomas

Arizona will carry two active quarterbacks -- Palmer and Stanton -- again this season. Thomas likely will spend all 16 games on the bench. He’s the future of the position for the Cardinals, so he’ll be given plenty of time to learn from the sideline but won’t see the field unless there’s an emergency.


Andre Ellington
Stepfan Taylor
Jonathan Dwyer
Robert Hughes

This will be Ellington’s year to star as the other three will be his backup singers. Taylor and Dwyer will battle it out for the second running back spot, while Hughes might end up being a bruising third-down and short-yardage back.


Larry Fitzgerald
Michael Floyd
Ted Ginn
John Brown
Walt Powell

The top three positions are set at receiver, and John Brown and his speed will see plenty of snaps. Walt Powell might be the odd man out when it comes to breaking the four-receiver sets.


Bobby Massie
Earl Watford
Lyle Sendlein
Jonathan Cooper
Jared Veldheer
Bradley Sowell
Ted Larsen
Nate Potter

The center and left side of the line are pretty much set unless Cooper doesn’t return to camp at 100 percent. The right side might go through a shake-up or two throughout camp, especially as the rotating battle at right guard continues.


Jake Ballard
John Carlson
Troy Niklas (injured)
Rob Housler

The top three are almost guaranteed to make the roster, but Housler will have to show he can play within the framework of what coach Bruce Arians expects out of this new crop of receivers. In the long run, Arians’ biggest decision will be which two should start because any of them can fit that role.


Calais Campbell
Darnell Dockett
Dan Williams
Kareem Martin
Frostee Rucker
Ed Stinson
Alameda Ta'amu (injured)

Why fix the defensive line if it’s not broken? Statistically speaking, the line was the best in the NFL last year, and adding Martin and Stinson will only make it better. Williams and Ta’amu will continue to rotate, and the two rookies will earn their stripes eventually.


John Abraham
Matt Shaughnessy
Sam Acho
Alex Okafor
Marcus Benard

This might be among the most hotly contested position in training camp because last year’s starters -- Abraham and Shaughnessy -- return, as do Acho and Okafor, who were injured in 2013. They’ll give the two vets a run for their money and Benard also has the skill to push for a job.


Larry Foote
Kevin Minter
Kenny Demens
Lorenzo Alexander

Besides right tackle, there isn’t another position with as many questions as inside linebacker. Any of the four can win the starting job, but all four might be used in a rotation.


Patrick Peterson
Antonio Cromartie
Jerraud Powers
Justin Bethel
Bryan McCann
Teddy Williams

Peterson and Cromartie are the starters, and the rest will be on call in case something happens.


Deone Bucannon
Rashad Johnson
Tony Jefferson
Tyrann Mathieu (injured)

Training camp will be beneficial for Bucannon and Jefferson, who’ll be fighting for a starting job. The depth at safety is loaded with talent, even while the Cardinals wait for Mathieu to return to the field.


Dave Zastudil

Zastudil has been steady and strong the past few seasons, and this year shouldn’t be any different.


Jay Feely

Feely will have to fight for his job again during camp, but this time it’ll be throughout instead of just the final week like he did last year. Youth might end up trumping experience at kicker, but if Feely can be consistent through camp, he has shown he can help the Cardinals.


Mike Leach

Leach, who’s as consistent as they come in the Cardinals’ locker room, will be their long-snapper until he either says it’s time to retire or he can’t walk anymore. Whichever comes first.

Camp preview: St. Louis Rams

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Nick Wagoner examines the three biggest issues facing the St. Louis Rams heading into training camp.

Sam Bradford's status: It's a familiar refrain that will be repeated ad nauseam for much of the offseason and camp, but it's the most basic and simple truth about the Rams in 2014 and the future: They'll go as far as quarterback Sam Bradford can take them. On the bright side, Bradford appears to be on schedule for a return to health from his season-ending knee injury, and the Rams expect him to be close to or at full speed for the start of camp.

That means Bradford will get a third season in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense and the opportunity to get the Rams into the mix in the NFC West division. It's safe to assume the Rams won't ask Bradford to carry the freight for what will likely be a run-heavy offense, but they also will need more from Bradford than what was required of backup Kellen Clemens. The Rams have clearly abandoned the spread approach they were installing this time last year, but they will almost certainly be more balanced than they were after Bradford's injury in 2013.

The Gregg Williams effect: Much was expected of the Rams' defense in 2013 after it performed well enough to keep the team in games, especially divisional games, in 2012. But the group not only didn't take a step forward but regressed slightly under coordinator Tim Walton. So when the Rams had the opportunity to land Gregg Williams this offseason, they took it.

Now, the expectations are even higher after bringing Williams aboard and spending a first-round pick on defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Williams is expected to bring an array of exotic blitz packages and an aggressive approach to a defense that should be able to create consistent pressure. How that manifests itself in this training camp will go a long way toward determining the team's 2014 success.

Stability on the offensive line: The Rams made some major moves along the offensive line in the offseason in an effort to compete with the big, physical defensive lines around the NFC West. They used the No. 2 pick on Auburn's Greg Robinson and signed guard Rodger Saffold to a lucrative contract extension. On paper, an offensive line of (from left to right) Jake Long, Robinson, Scott Wells, Saffold and Joe Barksdale could be one of the better units in the league with a good mix of experience and potential.

But for the second straight year, that group faces the pressing question of whether it can retain some semblance of stability in the face of injury. The presumptive 2013 starting five played just 295 of the offense's 968 snaps, checking in just above 30 percent. Only three lines around the league spent less time together. Wells and Long are recovering from season-ending injuries, and although the Rams expect both players to be ready for the start of the season, it's fair to wonder how many games and what type of production they'll get. Saffold also has a lengthy injury history even though he has yet to suffer any serious ailments since moving to guard.

There are some intriguing young players behind the starting five, including Barrett Jones, Tim Barnes and Brandon Washington, but if the Rams are to be the powerful, run-heavy offense they aspire to be, they'll need the starting five in place as often as possible.

Camp preview: Seattle Seahawks

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Terry Blount examines the three biggest issues facing the Seattle Seahawks heading into training camp.

Replacing some key losses: Ten players who were part of the Super Bowl roster are gone, and that doesn’t include cornerback Brandon Browner, who was suspended at the time. Six of those players were starters and nine of them had significant playing time during the season. But it sounds far worse than it is. All Super Bowl teams lose players, who see their value increase with other teams. For the most part, the Seahawks kept the players they wanted to keep. Seattle lost receiver Golden Tate but have added two talented rookie draft picks in Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood, not to mention having a 100 percent healthy Percy Harvin. They released defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons for salary-cap reasons, but they also saw both men as players on the downside of their careers. And they drafted talented defensive lineman Cassius Marsh of UCLA, a relentless pass-rusher who also can play inside. Seattle also drafted Missouri offensive tackle Justin Britt as a possible replacement for right tackle Breno Giacomini, who signed with the New York Jets. Britt is battling second-year player Michael Bowie for the starting spot. How all the new pieces fit remains to be seen, but the Seahawks did better than most Super Bowl winners in keeping the core group together and rewarding their top players (free safety Earl Thomas, cornerback Richard Sherman, receiver Doug Baldwin and defensive end Michael Bennett) with new deals.

The health of four key players: Strong safety Kam Chancellor and outside linebacker Bruce Irvin had offseason hip surgery. On this team more than most, hip surgery is a scary thought considering what happened last year, when Harvin missed most of the season after hip surgery. Outside linebacker Malcolm Smith, the Super Bowl MVP, had ankle surgery and offensive tackle Russell Okung had surgery to repair a torn ligament in a big toe, an injury that caused him to miss half of last season. All of them except Irvin are expected to be on the field to start training camp, but we won’t know for sure until we see them on the field. The main thing, of course, is to have them healthy for the start of the regular season, so look for them to take it slow in camp.

Can the Seahawks keep Lynch happy?: After all the talk on whether he would show up for minicamp, running back Marshawn Lynch was there, but only as an observer. Officially, he had a sore ankle. Unofficially, he has a beef over his contract, wanting more money up front from the Seahawks. Lynch hasn’t spoken on the subject. But others have, including his close friend, former Seattle fullback Michael Robinson, who has advised Lynch on the pros and cons of his desires to get his contact reworked in some fashion. Everyone was all smiles at minicamp, but will it last if Lynch doesn't get what he wants? Lynch is in the third year of a four-year deal worth $30 million. He is scheduled to make $5 million in base salary this year and $5.5 million in 2015. The Seahawks won’t give Lynch a new contract, but he attended the minicamp in good faith, believing the team will do a little something to change his number for this season. The question is what happens if they don’t? Does Lynch take a stand and skip part of training camp, or does he just let it go and continue to let Beast Mode do the talking for him?
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Bill Williamson examines the three biggest issues facing the San Francisco 49ers heading into training camp.

The holdouts: The 49ers, fresh off three straight trips to the NFC title game and seemingly poised for another long postseason run, have the weathered many storms this offseason.

Yes, there are some issues that still linger. The 49ers do not know if tight end Vernon Davis and/or guard Alex Boone will continue their holdouts into training camp.

Both players stayed away from voluntary workouts, and then became official holdouts when they did not report to mandatory minicamp last month.

Both Davis and Boone want a new deal. There are indications Boone will stay away until he gets a new contract. Davis has wavered, but he could also miss a chunk of camp.

Both players are key to the offense and would be missed. The 49ers would have to rely on youth at both spots if the holdouts linger. Vance McDonald would play for Davis and Joe Looney would play for Boone. Neither player is the caliber of the player they’d replace.

Aldon Smith: The 49ers head to training camp not completely sure of the future of the standout pass-rusher. The 49ers are set to start training camp next Wednesday. Two days later, Smith is set to be sentenced for pleading no contest to three felony gun charges. He could face some jail time.

He could also be facing an NFL suspension. If Smith is out, the 49ers will need to find some more pass-rush help, and that’s what training camp will be for. Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier helped the 49ers go 5-0 last season when Smith was in a treatment center. The team also drafted Aaron Lynch in the fifth round. If these players show a pass-rush burst in camp, that will make the 49ers feel better about the prospect of playing a long chunk without Smith.

New firepower: The 49ers have big potential on offense. Training camp and the preseason will be a time for the unit to gel and figure out the best approach to use all of the talent. The receiving crew is beefed up with addition of Stevie Johnson, through a trade with Buffalo, veteran Brandon Lloyd and fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington.

The depth of this season’s receiving group is light years ahead of last year’s unit. The thought of Johnson being the No. 3 receiver behind Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree is silly. Ellington, a South Carolina product, gives the 49ers an element they missed last season -- a burner who can take the top of the defense.

At running back -- the heart of the 49ers’ offense is still the ground attack -- Frank Gore will have second-round pick Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore, who appears to be healthy after missing last season while recovering from a 2012 torn ACL.

Hyde has looked great as a runner and receiver in the offseason. The second-round pick from Ohio State has a chance to make a big impact.

All of these new weapons of course, should help the overall game of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is entering his second full season as a starter.

The 49ers have big capabilities on offense, but the real work begins now.

Camp preview: Arizona Cardinals

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Josh Weinfuss examines the three biggest issues facing the Arizona Cardinals heading into training camp.

Replacing Washington: Losing Daryl Washington to at least a yearlong suspension before training camp was the only positive that came out of the ordeal. It gave the Cardinals time to process the loss and figure out how to replace him. But that’s easier said than done. One starter is locked in: Kevin Minter. The other? Well, that’s up in the air and might take all seven weeks of training camp and preseason to determine. Arizona’s options aren’t just thin, they’re older as well, meaning the Cardinals don’t have another three-down linebacker who can seamlessly replace Washington. The battle next to Minter will begin with Larry Foote, Ernie Sims and Lorenzo Alexander. Foote, coach Bruce Arians said, can play as many as two downs. Sims didn’t impress during offseason work. And Alexander is still recovering from a Lisfranc injury. Don’t be surprised if the starter at inside linebacker for “Monday Night Football” in Week 1 isn’t running conditioning sprints on the first day of camp. Arizona doesn’t want just another body at inside linebacker –- although that’s what they might have to settle for -– they want to replace Washington’s speed, size and agility. And that likely won't might not happen.

Right tackle: Arizona thought it would end organized team activities and minicamp with a better idea -– if not a clear-cut idea -– of their starting right tackle. All that was determined? If combined, Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell would be the team’s ideal tackle. Individually, however, neither blew coaches away. Both still will have a chance to win the job during training camp, although, like at inside linebacker, the starting right tackle might not be on the roster. Massie has an advantage in size and experience, having started at right tackle for the entire 2012 season. He was replaced last year by Eric Winston, who the Cardinals haven’t re-signed but is being considered for the job. Massie’s ability to retain the playbook has come into question throughout his stay in Arizona and was again at the forefront of the conversation during the offseason. Sowell has experience on both sides of the line, but more so as a left tackle, where he started for the final 12 games last season. His fundamentals were lacking at times throughout the offseason. It won’t be surprising if neither Massie nor Sowell start the season at right tackle.

Avoid a plateau: Around Week 8 last season, the proverbial light bulb went on for almost everyone in the Cardinals' locker room. It seemed like overnight, Arizona went from a confused offense that wasn’t progressing to a unit that begin firing on all cylinders for the final half of the season. It led the Cardinals to a 6-2 finish and a 10-6 overall record while missing a playoff bid in the final weekend of the season. In order to return to double-digit wins, Arizona needs to continue to build offensively. The Cardinals need to avoid a plateau and continue evolving offensively, especially with new pieces such as Ted Ginn, John Brown, John Carlson and Troy Niklas having large roles and returning running back Andre Ellington inheriting Arizona’s starting running back job after Rashard Mendenhall retired. Arians is an offensive genius, but with every season comes new players, which means there’ll always be a span of practice that’s dedicated to learning the offense in detail. Arizona just can’t let that stretch into the regular season. Any kinks need to be ironed out during camp, and the Cardinals need to finish training camp ready to roll.