NFP's camp countdown: NFC West

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As the offseason nears its end, here are the top storylines for each NFC West team heading into training camp.

Arizona Cardinals: The Boldin distraction
The Anquan Boldin(notes) story died once the Pro Bowl receiver let go of headline-seeking agent Drew Rosenhaus, but that doesn't mean it won't return. And for the sake of the Cardinals, it's essential that it doesn't happen in August.


Boldin has 8 catches for 84 yards in the Super Bowl.

(Jamie Squire/Getty)

We tend to forget that Boldin, when paired with Larry Fitzgerald(notes), forms one of the best receiving combos in the league – along with Randy Moss(notes) and Wes Welker(notes) in New England, and Terrell Owens(notes) and Lee Evans(notes) in Buffalo – and that can't be disrupted by a holdout or by the many off-the-field distractions that a contract situation can provide. Plus, this isn't the same team without him. Sure, we can look at the addition of rookie running back Chris "Beanie" Wells and the solid play of their young defense, and even the emergence of receiver Steve Breaston(notes), but we all know better. This team wins and loses depending on the production of Boldin and Fitzgerald. I've said this before: Training camp has a way of swallowing up players. They forget about distractions because they focus on football every single day of the month. My hope is that Boldin follows this line because he'll get paid in time if the Cardinals are smart.

There's a reason the Super Bowl loser struggles the following year, and it usually comes down to players putting themselves before the team and asking for that big payday because they just played on the biggest stage in all of sports. Boldin needs to just play football next month if the Cards want to repeat as NFC West champs – and wait for the big check to follow.

San Francisco 49ers: Smith's last stand
From my perspective, this is quarterback Alex Smith's last chance to win a starting job in the NFL, and to do that he must have his best training camp as a pro because Shaun Hill(notes) has shown he can produce scoring drives in this league.

Outside of San Francisco, there are many doubters regarding the 49ers' quarterback position, and the rumors seemed to spiral out of control before the NFL draft about USC's Mark Sanchez(notes) and the possibility of signing Michael Vick(notes). But the Niners obviously see something in Smith to give him that final shot at the job. And now, we get to see how the former No. 1 overall pick responds to the greatest pressure he has faced in his career. Smith was never a proper fit for former offensive coordinator Mike Martz's offense, but is he still a fit in San Francisco? Is there still value to his game, and can he lead this team on scoring drives and put them in position to win games? This Niners team is still young, it still has question marks, and Singletary has publicly stated that he wants to name a starter heading into the third preseason game. That gives Smith two preseason games and about four weeks of practice to prove himself.

Most players in the league respond well to adversity, and the type of adversity Smith is facing as we head into August has everything to do with the rest of his career as an NFL quarterback. How he responds will tell the story.

Seattle Seahawks: The return of Hasselbeck
We can all agree that the Seahawks will win football games if quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) is healthy and plays at a high level. But can we count on that heading into training camp?

Hasselbeck had a disastrous season in 2008, and of the seven games he started and played, his rating dropped to a career low 57.8 with 10 interceptions (compared to five TDs), and the team suffered. The West Coast system in Seattle is perfect for Hasselbeck's style of play, and I can tell you from my own experiences playing against him and that offense, there isn't a better option to run the West Ccoast system in the league along with Donovan McNabb(notes) and the Eagles. It's essential for Hasselbeck, who will be 34 years old in September, to build an on-field relationship with new receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) during the month of August, because I believe he's the type of receiver who can produce big numbers in this scheme. It's based on timing and throwing to a certain position on the field, and it involves short underneath routes that get the ball to wide receivers in the open field. But for Hasselbeck to return to the top tier of quarterbacks in the league, he needs help from the running game, and his other receivers – Nate Burleson(notes) and Deion Branch(notes) – need to stay healthy and contribute.

All eyes should and will be on Hasselbeck when training camp opens, and if the Seahawks get off to another slow start, expect this club to start looking toward the future – and that means preparing to draft a quarterback in 2010.

St. Louis Rams: Spags' defense
The Rams hired Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo this offseason as their new head coach, and whenever a club hires a defensive head coach it signifies a change in culture.

The Rams have been known this decade for one thing: their productive offense. That's expected to change under Spagnuolo. NFP's Michael Lombardi did an excellent job breaking down the challenges that Spags will face in his first season in St. Louis. Those obstacles aside, what he can do is teach, install and start to build a brand of defense that will be synonymous with the Rams for some time – just as he did in New York. But where does he start? In my opinion, every good defense starts up front, and the Rams have some players who can come off the edge in ends Chris Long(notes) and Leonard Little(notes). However, this defense will be in a transition period in August as players learn new techniques and learn to practice with new habits. Defense at this level goes a lot deeper than scheme, and it's the men in charge who have the most influence over the players. Expect to see the defense make gains throughout August and play competitive football in the regular season.

This franchise is basically starting over – and Spags has to get his defensive players to buy into the way his defense is played.

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