The Seattle Seahawks are looking to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2014. This will be a difficult feat because they play in the NFL’s toughest division, the NFC West. The San Francisco 49ers are also looked upon as legitimate contenders for the tittle. It wouldn’t be a surprise if three playoff teams come from this division. The road to the Super Bowl kicked off with OTAs and mini camps. Let’s take a quick look at what went on in the past month of action as we go around the NFC West.
St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams signed all of their draft picks with one quick swoop just before mini camp. They typically sign their guys late, so the idea that they weren’t signed before mini camp is nothing new. One of the rookies that will have a big impact is safety Lamarcus Joyner. He was a major play maker at Florida State and he is already shining in OTAs. He’s working at both nickel and safety.
Defensive coordinator Greg Williams has been impressed with Joyner. The tenacious coaching style of Williams is already taking it’s effect on Joyner. “Coach Williams is an aggressive coach. I love him as a person. He’s genuine, he’s whole hearted and brings the intensity. I love it because it makes us chase perfection and in the pursuit of that, we achieve excellence.”
Williams has a history of defenses that feature outstanding safety play. That should continue with Joyner and second year safety TJ McDonald. McDonald will be used as a robber in most of the defensive sets. The defense will also be bolstered by rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer mentioned he has already seen Donald leave an impression with his disruptive style of play in 11 on 11 drills during OTAs.
Schottenheimer will look to make the Sam Bradford to Tavon Austin connection a more successful one. The Rams have been experimenting with different ways to get the ball to Austin in mini camp. Austin will benefit from another year in the NFL and has said that so far this year he feels more confident mentally which will help him play faster. Bradford is returning from a knee injury but feels he is ahead of schedule.
“I was really happy with every thing that went on at OTAs. We were able to do a little more with the knee than anticipated. Felt the best it has in a while so we’re looking to build on that. I feel really good. I’m building up the endurance of my legs. I expected to only be able to do 7 on 7 but to be able to get some work during team period is huge. To be able to gets reps on some of the things that we are putting in, it’s big.”
The Arizona Cardinals are one of three strong divisonal contenders for the NFC playoffs. They added to an already talented secondary by signing free agent corner Antonio Cromartie and drafting safety Deone Bucannon. Bucannon has struggled a bit in OTAs and mini camps only because he was trying too hard to do everything right. He’s a naturally gifted player and head coach Bruce Arians wants him to just let the game come to him. “Deone has only got one problem, he is so much a perfectionist. It is paralysis by analysis right now because he wants to do everything just perfect. Even Tyrann Mathieu told him, ‘Just play.’ You can’t play perfect all the time. But you do love that about him.”
Cromartie and Peterson will form one of the best corner back duos. Cromartie has stated that he feels good after returning from injury and has proclaimed himself to be one of the top two corners in the NFL. Peterson has continued to be a mentor and is working towards signing a new contract.
The defense will suffer from the suspension of inside linebacker Darryl Washington. He was one of the best at his position but the defense is still the strong point of the team. They signed Ernie Sims to replace him. He has alternated with Kevin Minter taking reps with the first team.
Offensively, the Cardinals looked to improve the tight end position. They were able to do so by adding Troy Niklas through the draft. He’s a big physical target that Carson Palmer has already looked to feed the ball. John Brown has probably been the most impressive offensive player in OTAs and mini camp. He’s already showing himself to be a deep threat and has worked in a good amount of three receiver sets with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers come into OTAs and mini camps after a pretty rough off season. Things didn’t get any better when Vernon Davis and Alex Boone decided to holdout of mandatory mini camp. Fortunately, the focus has been on a healthy Michael Crabtree. His teammates have noticed he is more explosive in and out of his breaks.
Crabtree has always been the favorite target for Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick agreed to a cap friendly deal that would allow the 49ers to resign players such as his go to receiver. Crabtree’s return to form is something that Kaepernick spoke about recently. “At the end of last year he still wasn’t 100 percent,” Kaepernick said. “He has a lot more burst to him now. Looks really good.”
Anquan Boldin has continued to be a mentor to receiver Quinton Patton and has shared pointers with veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd who is back after a one year retirement. The professionalism Boldin displays rubs off on everyone. He is clearly a leader on the team and he is a tone setter, even in practice. Not many proven veterans go as hard as he does in OTAs or mini camp but that is the attitude that takes him a long way. Jim Harbaugh has taken notice and talked about the leader Boldin has been in OTAs. “You watch Anquan and you take things from him every day,” Harbaugh said. “He will go up and talk to a guy, whether it’s the quarterback or the wide receiver, an offensive player. I’ve even seen him do it with defensive backs, and he’ll give them a tip. It gets quiet when he’s talking because people are listening.”
Defensively, the 49ers are working with a revamped secondary. Second year safety Eric Reid and newly signed safety Antoine Bethea are taking a lot of reps together to get more familiar with communication and playing off of each other. “That’s the point of OTAs and mini camp. We work together, learn each other. We are meshing really well. He knows concepts. He knows football. For him it’s just getting the terminology. We’re learning and working together. We are taking full advantage of the off season and will be ready for the upcoming season.”
Chris Culliver is set to be the starting corner back but he is still working his way back from a knee injury. As a result, Chris Cook has taken most of the first team reps on the opposite side of returning starter Tremaine Brock. The nickel spot is an open competition. First round pick Jimmie Ward was sidelined for OTAs and mini camp but he has taken mental reps. Darryl Morris and Perish Cox have lined up at the nickel spot and both have done well. Morris made a nice interception of a McLeod Bethel-Thompsonn pass during mini camp.
Last but not least, we have the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. The biggest news out of camp was the scuffle between Richard Sherman and receiver Phil Bates. Sherman is an aggressive corner and decided to throw Bates around a little bit during a rep at mini camp which resulted some punches being thrown. Sherman and Bates were seen laughing about it later as Sherman and Percy Harvin did a playful recreation on sideline.
The Seahawks return the core of their defense and they are already getting after it. Pete Carroll is known to practice at a high pace and so far, that is not changing as they look to defend their title. Marshawn Lynch was not in attendance for voluntary OTAs but did report to mini camp. The other running backs were able to take advantage of some extra valuable reps while Lynch was gone. They all impressed Pete Carroll but second year back Christine Michael has stood out the most to the coach.
“This has been great for them,” coach Pete Carroll said. “Christine has made the most progress, had the farthest to come. Turbo continues to work really well. Those guys are right on it, really doing well in pass protection and pass assignments. And in the passing game, those guys have shown us they can help us. It’s been a great off season for those guys.”
The Seahawks lost Golden Tate to free agency but they retained Doug Baldwin and drafted Paul Richardson. Richardson has already made an impact. He wanted to come in and make plays right from the start. He has done so by beating the Seahawk defensive backs while catching a number of deep passes.
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