NFC West training camp preview: New-look Cardinals captivate

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By the end of this month, training camps will open across the NFL. Where are the looming position battles to keep taps on? Who are the critical players to watch? We’ll provide each team’s keys in this division-by-division series. Today, Adam Maya digs into the NFC West:

Arizona Cardinals

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 17) and veterans (July 24).

Location: State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Most important position battle: wide receiver. The pass-happy Air Raid requires go-to targets — plural — and the Cardinals have prepared for such a move by loading up on receivers this offseason. Larry Fitzgerald is still churning at 35, but the intrigue here lies in the youth movement around him. Christian Kirk figures to build on a productive rookie campaign that was cut short by injury, while Arizona drafted Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson, and took a flier on former first-rounder Kevin White to compete for playing time. There could be a bit of a revolving door, especially if the Cardinals go four-wide on a regular basis. But chemistry could quickly equate to snaps as Arizona also looks to break in a rookie quarterback.

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Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Kyler Murray, quarterback. He’ll be the straw that stirs whatever this offense becomes. Kliff Kingsbury’s arrival will provide the purest form of the Air Raid the NFL has seen, and Murray would seem to be an ideal candidate to lead it. Contrary to what some might believe, the dual-threat maven claimed the Heisman for his exploits as a passer (4,361 yards, 42 TDs) as much as a runner (1,001 yards, 12 scores). He’s tasked to boost an offense that finished last in the NFL in passing, rushing and scoring last year. And after Arizona discarded 2018 top-10 pick Josh Rosen — and first-year coach Steve Wilks for Kingsbury — no rookie enters the league under a brighter spotlight.

Looming camp question: How will David Johnson be deployed? Running backs tend to be productive in Kingsbury’s scheme, and Johnson is ripe after two forgettable seasons. The all-purpose back has set his sights on 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards, which has been accomplished only twice before (Roger Craig in 1985, Marshall Faulk in 1999). After averaging just 56.4 plays per game a year ago, the Cardinals figure to operate at a pace that could produce such a feat. The bigger question surrounds Johnson and whether he can regain his 2016 All-Pro form. His ability to run halfback verticals and line up outside makes him a tantalizing weapon. How he maneuvers behind a rebuilding offensive line could be another story.

Los Angeles Rams

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 24) and veterans (July 26).

Location: University of California-Irvine in Irvine, California.

Most important position battle: safety. In the aftermath of their Super Bowl run, the Rams still boast one of the deepest and most complete rosters in the league. While there’s probably a job or two still up for grabs on the offensive line, the more compelling competition is at free safety alongside John Johnson. Los Angeles brought in sage veteran Eric Weddle to replace Lamarcus Joyner. It also spent a second-round pick on Taylor Rapp, who is said to have carried a first-round grade from the organization. Weddle and Rapp are different athletes yet have comparable player profiles in that they’re instinctive, they take good angles and cover a lot of ground. They can also play either safety position. Weddle will almost certainly be the Day 1 starter, but Rapp could cut into the former All-Pro’s workload depending on how well he picks up Wade Phillips’ scheme.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Clay Matthews, linebacker. The former Packers star and USC alumnus returns home after 10 seasons in Green Bay. He’ll be eager to prove there’s something left in the tank after registering a career-low 3.5 sacks in 2018. This marriage could be the right time, right place for both parties. The Rams are desperate to develop pass rushing outside of Aaron Donald — departed DT Ndamukong Suh’s 4.5 sacks last year were second on the team. Matthews’ experience playing on and off the ball should allow Phillips to slide him wherever he sees fit. The veteran LB has been relatively healthy the past two years and perhaps just needs a change of scenery.

Looming camp question: How big of a load can Todd Gurley carry? The fifth-year back is coming off the two best seasons of his career. It’s his play in the latter half of last season, particularly in the postseason, that has many wondering what role he’ll assume moving forward. Gurley collected just 45 rushing yards and 2 receiving yards between the NFC title game and Super Bowl. The plan is to stop making him a bell-cow back in hopes that he’ll be more effective with a lesser load. Gurley has been invaluable to the Rams’ offense under Sean McVay, even leading the team in receptions in 2017. Los Angeles prepared for reducing Gurley’s role by drafting Darrell Henderson in the third round. The rookie looks to be a perfect scheme fit after posting prolific numbers at Memphis while running outside zone.

San Francisco 49ers

Training camp report date: rookies and veterans (July 26).

Location: SAP Performance Facility in Santa Clara, California.

Most important position battle: running back. Tevin Coleman has arrived. Jerick McKinnon has returned. Matt Breida has emerged. The trio makes for a talented backfield but crowded RB room. None of the three have been a feature back in the past, so perhaps that isn’t the expectation for any of them in San Francisco. But the 49ers spent a lot of money on McKinnon last spring to not use him. He looks to be the best receiver of the bunch and thus could be leaned on more in the passing game. Coleman, who played for Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, is coming off his most productive season and knows this offense well. Breida, meanwhile, was thrust into the starting lineup following McKinnon’s season-long injury last year and responded with a robust average of 5.3 yards per carry. Keeping all three happy could be as complicated as defending them.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Nick Bosa, defensive end. For the fourth time in five seasons, the 49ers spent their top pick on a defensive lineman. This one, however, is expected to make an immediate impact. Bosa was regarded by many as the surest bet in the 2019 NFL Draft and figures to give San Francisco a formidable pass rush. It would be a major development for a team whose defense ranked near the bottom last year and ultimately cost the 49ers a handful of wins. As of this writing, Bosa has yet to sign his rookie contract, which is notable given his brother’s holdout upon entering the league in 2016. The other caveat with Bosa isn’t youth but health. He missed the majority of his final season at Ohio State with a core-muscle injury and has been limited by a balky hamstring this offseason. San Francisco is counting on the No. 2 overall pick to produce alongside Pro Bowler DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, as Solomon Thomas likely slides into a backup role inside.

Looming camp question: How is Jimmy Garoppolo? The 49ers’ franchise quarterback has carefully worked his way back from a torn ACL and believes he’ll be full-go in training camp. San Francisco isn’t the trendy playoff pick that it was entering last season, but remains a dark-horse candidate to reach the postseason. Of course, that’s assuming Jimmy G is available and performing at the level of his previous small sample size, for which he was paid handsomely. He’s been in the Bay for nearly two years now but has made just eight starts. If he doubles that this year, the 49ers should boast one of the league’s more dynamic offenses. They’ve revamped their receiving corps since acquiring Garoppolo midway through the 2017 season, drafting Dante Pettis, Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd to play alongside Marquise Goodwin and Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle. The pieces are seemingly there. What remains to be seen is how they all fit with Garoppolo under center.

Seattle Seahawks

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 17) and veterans (July 24).

Location: Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton, Washington.

Most important position battle: running back. Pete Carroll isn’t one to feel beholden to where a player was drafted. That’s why the Seahawks rode 2017 seventh-round pick Chris Carson to a breakout season last year, just months after selecting Rashaad Penny in the first round. But competition is always open under Carroll. With Carson limited by a knee injury this offseason, Penny reportedly has shined while taking the majority of the reps. While Penny is the better receiver and has more big-play ability, Carson has proven he can move the chains. They’ll continue to fight for carries in an offense that ran more than anyone last year but has typically leaned on a lead back over a committee.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: D.K. Metcalf, wide receiver. You might have heard about his combine. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound specimen posted a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash and 40.5 inches in the vertical jump. He also recorded slower times in the 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill than Tom Brady. The rookie wideout’s profile screams boom or bust. Metcalf was explosive but not often productive while at Ole Miss, catching just 65 passes over his final two seasons but averaging 18.6 yards per reception and scoring 12 touchdowns. (Granted, he missed time due to injury.) Metcalf joins a receiving corps that possesses just as many question marks following the retirement of Doug Baldwin. The Seahawks drafted Metcalf in the second round because of his great potential. But they need him to produce.

Looming camp question: Does the offense take a jump in Year 2 under Brian Schottenheimer? After flaming out as an OC with the New York Jets, St. Louis Rams and Georgia Bulldogs, Marty’s son was one of the most surprising hires last offseason. Perhaps even more surprising was that his first year in Seattle was a success. The Seahawks rebuilt their offensive line and reemerged as one of the league’s best rushing outfits, while Russell Wilson enjoyed one of his most efficient passing seasons. The challenge ahead is discerning how to employ the NFL’s highest-paid player, as a disappointing playoff showing raised questions about whether the play-calling was too conservative and needed to involve more passing all along. That would likely require better protection from an O-line that surrendered 51 sacks in 2018. As noted above, Seattle is also searching for playmakers at WR beyond Tyler Lockett. With the Legion of Boom era now over, the Seahawks, whose defense remains a plus, will now go as far as their QB can take them. But he still needs help.

Follow Adam Maya on Twitter @AdamJMaya.

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