Know thine enemy
Success in the NFL really is a pretty simple equation. If you're playing football in January, you're doing well. If you're playing football in February, you're the king. So the question is, how do you procure an invitation to the NFL's 6-week New Year gala?
Simple....you beat the teams in your division! So with that in mind, here's a name or two, from within the division, at each position of players you may not know, but need to know. You won't see familiar names of those who have performed (Warner, Hass, Edge, Boldin, Alexander, etc.) or those who haven't done a thing except in the media (Vernon Davis, Matt Leinert). Instead this is a brief look at players who may make a noteworthy play during against our Rams, which leads you to ask....."Who is THAT guy?".
I'm hear to tell you who THAT guy is. Let's begin.
QB - Alex Smith - SF - A newbie in a division of veteran QBs is a tough thing to be. First, he's not going to garner a lot of respect when compared with the accomplishments of Hass, Bulger, and Warner. Second, if he's the young QB, that means he was probably drafted by a team that didn't finish well, which is the obvious case.
Having said that, Smith is an outstanding QB. He's not the next Manning, or as Jerry Rice pointed out this week, the next Montana or Young, but he is a leader and highly intelligent. Those are the trademarks of a man who can fit the system around him. He did it in Utah with the Meyer Spread offense, and he should be able to do so as well with Turner's new 2-TE set.
It's an uphill road, but if there's any talent around him, Smith will be able to find it.
RB - Frank Gore - SF - Gore replacing Barlow is not an "IF", but a "WHEN". Gore is a compact, stronger-than-his-size type of pounder (not unlike our own Moe W.). The two knocks on Gore are...1) his knees, both surgically repaired and question marks, and 2) his intelligence; the kid has problems as a student, be it the classroom or the playbook. Conclusions from the Wonderlic can only be taken so far, but a 6 is pretty telling of where Gore's game needs the most improvement. That falls to Turner....if he keeps the system workable for Gore, he should have a winner.
FB - Obafemi Ayanbadejo - AZ - If the Cards new cutting "Edge" ground game is to ever.....well, get off the ground, somebody is going to have to open the holes. It may be up to veteran Ayanbadejo. The birds roster already has an outstanding lead blocker in James Hodgins, but the last time he was healthy, Incognito was playing college ball. Ayanbadejo, known more for his receiving skills, may have to develop his blocking game as well. The Edge is going to need an even sharper edge to lead the way.
WR - Brian Gilmore - SF - For the first time since a short stint in Arizona, Gilmore may be a starter in the NFL. This 28 year-old is in the perfect situation. He's on a team with a wide-open offense, and not a lot of receiving talent. He is probably last on the list that DCs will be looking at when the niners come to town. The emphasis will be on #1 wide-out Bryant, the interior ground game of Gore, and the dual TE threat of Johnson and Davis. If defenses forget about the niners #2 receiver, Gilmore, he could be set for a breakout year in the bay.
TE - Jeremy Stevens - Seattle - Certain things you can always count on.....O-linemen from Michigan, LBs from Penn State, and TEs from Miami. Like so many before him, Stevens has an all-world frame (6'7", 265) and talent to match. His problem has been health. He had surgery this spring to repair his left knee and this will keep him out of action until the end of camp. But, after he gets his wheels back under him, Stevens could be set for a monster year. His production has been on the rise since a set-back in his 2nd year, and this year could be the time he finally establishes himself among the leagues best TEs
OT - Adam Snyder - SF , Ray Willis - Seattle - Going out on a bit of a limb here......one, if not both, of these guys will be a full-time starter by the end of the year. Both are an eyelash from starting now. In the bay, Snyder need only for Jennings to show he's not fully recovered or for Nolan's patience to run out with Harris, and this Oregon duck will be running with the ones. Versatile pass blocker who put on a little needed bulk in the offseason. Just north of the bay, Willis has been impressing Holmgren and staff this camp. Willis, who played a back seat to teammate Alex Barron in college, is a mauler with a mean streak. He's a top notch run blocker who can pass block as well. While LT is not an option for Willis, he could displace both Locklear and veteran Ashworth to be the team's RT.
OG - Justin Smiley, David Baas - SF , Deuce Latui - AZ - Like no other division, the NFC West is loaded with young talented interior OL. You need look no further than the Rams to see this is true, but it can also be seen in the other 3 team as well. Smiley is already slated to start opposite Larry Allen on the niner line, and IMO is one of the highlights of a not-so-stellar bay roster. With Allen approaching his final days on the field, the versatile Baas will soon see plenty of time on the field as well. Both these guys are mobile enough to get outside with the run and strong enough to keep the pocket allowing Smith his needed time. Smiley and Baas will be interior bookends for some time to come.
Latui, the rookie of this group, is currently buried on the charts, but that will quickly change. Ahead of him are two guys (Milliford Brown & Elton Brown) who are solid earth movers with little mobility (think big Claude), and Reggie Wells who is nursing injuries. Latui, may be the most talented of the bunch, and is certainly the most versatile of the group, having started several games at RT for USC. An athletic 335-pounder who should be starting soon in the desert.
OC - Chris Spencer - Seattle - He's everything you want in a Center....smart, fiery, agile, stronger than his size. But when Spencer hits the field, it may be as the starting LG. With Womack injured, the LG spot will come down to either rookie Rob Sims, or 2nd year Spencer. Spencer is the more talented of the two, but it will be a position change. He's played it before but not since his 2nd year in college at Ol' Miss. However, as Spencer is currently backing up a solid but 36-year-old Tobeck at Center, Spencer's starting nod may come even quicker than expected.
DE - Darryl Tapp - Seattle - Ex-Rams Wistrom and Fisher are pretty well set as the starters, but it will be hard for the Hawks to keep this rookie off the field. He's still developing, but with a staff that believes in rotating the D-line, Tapp may find himself in the backfield more than on the sideline.
DT - Rocky Bernard - Seattle - Quick.....name the NFL's sack leading DT from last year! Okay, the leader was actually Atlanta's Rod Coleman with 10.5, but 2nd only to him was Seattle's Rocky Bernard with 8.5. A tremendous interior penetrator, who made Bryce Fisher look even better on the outside. With the monstrous Marcus Tubbs swallowing blockers next to him, Bernard will prove himself to be one of, if not the, best 3-technique in the league.
OLB - Leroy Hill - Seattle - Quick....name the NFL's sack leading 4-3 LB from last year! Okay, again that wasn't a Seahawk, it was the Raven's Adalius Thomas, however in a tie for 2nd was the Hawks' Leroy Hill. Within only 11 games, Hill managed to solidify his spot as a pass rushing OLB alongside rookie wunderkid, Lofa Tatupu. Hill will have with him this year, not only Tatupu, but Julian Peterson. The hype will go elsewhere on this defense, but Hill has to be accounted for in blitz packages.
MLB - Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich - SF - Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt know what I'm talking about here, ask them. What do you get when you do your job for nearly a decade....consistently, quietly, not-flashy, not-controversial, just....professional? A big heaping helping of "overlooked", that's what. Smith and Ulbrich are two of the finest MLBs in football, but since they do so quietly in an area that revels in outlandish personalities, they don't receive much hype. Truth is, these two are the anchor on a defensive ship that would be completely lost without them.
CB - Antrell Rolle - AZ - Sidelined with an injury during his rookie campaign, we only saw flashes of what made Rolle the top corner prospect last year. He started 4 games last year, and with the exception of his debut looked like a tackling machine (28 tackles in final 3 starts). On a defense that was better than they get credit for, Rolle could make them even better.....assuming he can unseat either David Macklin or Eric Green.
S - Michael Green - Seattle - Green's career has been one big see-saw. In odd numbered years, he deals with injuries and depth chart burials. In even numbered years, he looks like a pro-bowler. Will '06 be the return to greatness for Green? The bigger question is....will Hamlin return to form? If so, then Green may have to wait even longer to get back to the limelight. But if not, Green will find himself in the middle of an ever-improving Seahawk defense.
Special Teams - Ryan Plackmeier (P) - Seattle - This guy is good enough to make the Hawks release veteran Tom Rouen before camp ever started. His booming leg will keep opposing offenses pinned in to some pretty long fields.