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NFC West training camp preview: 49ers restock; Cardinals trend up

With training camps scheduled to begin this month, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below, Adam Maya has the lowdown on position battles, strengths, weaknesses and newcomers in the NFC West.

Arizona Cardinals
2019 record: 5-10-1

Most important position battle: Right tackle. This could prove to be a three-man competition. Arizona invested its third-round pick in this year's draft on University of Houston product Josh Jones, a possible steal, considering some viewed him as a first-round talent. He was one of the most effective pass-blockers in the FBS last year and might land at left tackle down the road. Before the draft, the Cardinals brought back veteran Marcus Gilbert on a one-year deal after he missed all of last season with a knee injury. The former Steeler has played in just 12 games in the past three seasons but has a ton of starting experience. And then there's Kelvin Beachum, who was signed just last week after serving as the Jets' starting left tackle for the past three seasons. For a team in desperate need of upgrades on the offensive line, this competition should produce one.

Biggest strength on roster: Wide receiver. This wasn't an especially strong group last season. The acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins changes that entirely, though. Nuk has been good for about 100 catches, 1,300 yards and 9 TDs the past six years. Even at 28 years old, those numbers might rise in the Air Raid offense. Larry Fitzgerald is still churning (75-804-4 in 2019) entering Year 17, just not quite at a Pro Bowl level. Christian Kirk doesn't look like he'll become a WR1 and is not yet a quality WR2, but he makes for a fine WR3. Mix in second-year veterans Hakeem Butler, KeeSean Johnson and Andy Isabella, and you have one of the better receiver groups in the league.

Biggest weakness: Offensive line. The blocking, while improved, simply wasn't good enough last year for an offense that is largely predicated on the passing game and led by a young QB with a tendency to hold onto the ball for too long. This has been an issue for the Cardinals for a while now, and most of the starting lineup on the O-line returns intact. Left tackle D.J. Humphries is trending upward as a pass protector after finally making it through a full season last year. The next step for Arizona's best lineman would be to make a Pro Bowl. A few members of this unit might need to have career years for the group to be considered average. 

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver. It's been four months since Arizona fleeced Houston in the deal to acquire Hopkins, and it's still hard to believe it happened. I know the Texans picked up some draft capital in the deal in addition to David Johnson, but Johnson, beyond being a 28-year-old running back, has provided declining returns in the two seasons since he signed a three-year contract extension worth $39 million. Hopkins, meanwhile, is one of the NFL's top receivers, smack dab in his prime and under contract through 2022. He'll serve as a safety net and deep threat for Kyler Murray, who was one of the game's best downfield passers as a rookie. Their connection could make a big difference in the win-loss column for a team that dropped five games by seven points or fewer last year and had another contest end in a tie.

Los Angeles Rams
2019 record: 9-7

Most important position battle: Running back. Cutting Todd Gurley might not have been the most comfortable move, but it was probably the correct one. A feature back of his magnitude (and cap number) isn't essential in this iteration of the West Coast offense (SEE: the 49ers and Falcons under Kyle Shanahan as play-caller). Rams fans will just need to get used to a committee approach. The triumvirate of Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson and 2020 second-round pick Cam Akers figure to begin training camp on comparable footing. All three will contribute, but look for the more talented Akers, the team's top selection in April, to eventually assume the biggest role.

Biggest strength on roster: Defensive line. Aaron Donald might have relinquished his grip on the title of best player in the league to Patrick Mahomes. Whatever. Donald is No. 2 at worst. The Rams not only honored his wish of re-signing Michael Brockers but nabbed former Lion A'Shawn Robinson to play alongside him. Los Angeles has one of the league's better fronts, one that should cause plenty of problems against the run. However, there is some question as to who besides Donald will take down QBs, especially with edge rusher Dante Fowler now in Atlanta.

Biggest weakness: Linebacker. There isn't an obvious replacement for Cory Littleton, who departed for the Raiders in free agency. He might not be widely recognized as a star, but he produced like one. He leaves a huge hole in the middle of the field. At outside linebacker, free-agent signee Leonard Floyd will make some plays but has not been a consistent producer in his four NFL seasons. Thus, the Bears picked up his fifth-year option, only to release him before it kicked in this offseason. Expect there to be some trial-by-fire for 2020 third-rounder Terrell Lewis and a handful of late-round picks from recent drafts who have yet to make a major impact.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Van Jefferson, wide receiver. Never mind that he was the 12th receiver to come off the board in April. He landed in an ideal situation. The Florida product is known for his route running and hands, prompting NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah to deem Jefferson a "beautiful fit" for the Rams offense. Moreover, there's a clear path to playing time following Brandin Cooks' departure. Don't be surprised if Jefferson is an immediate contributor.

San Francisco 49ers
2019 record: 13-3

Most important position battle: Defensive tackle. No 49ers defensive player was better over the past two seasons than DeForest Buckner, who was dealt to the Colts in March. There will inevitably be a drop-off at his position. In fact, San Francisco might be looking at multiple players to replace Buckner's production. Rookie Javon Kinlaw has Pro Bowl potential, per Jeremiah, and physically looks the part. He'll have to overcome a tendency to play up and down to his opponents, though. D.J. Jones is an intriguing alternative after an impressive showing in 2019. His ability to clog up the middle assuredly helps the 49ers' pass rush. Former No. 3 overall pick Solomon Thomas got less run in Year 3, but he's proven to be more effective when the team uses him inside. He couldn't ask for a better opportunity to occupy a starting job again.

Biggest strength on roster: Defensive line. Sans Buckner, the 49ers still might boast the best front in football. Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa has already established himself as one of the best pass rushers in the league. Arik Armstead is finally fulfilling his promise and was a Pro Bowl snub last season. Although injuries sidetracked Dee Ford's first season in the Bay, the 49ers' pass rush was a different animal when he was on the field. The defense as a whole will be hard-pressed to replicate its 2019 form, when it ranked No. 2 in DVOA, but the D-line will continue to keep QBs up at night before games and on their backs during them.

Biggest weakness: Running back. There isn't an obvious choice for this category with the 49ers boasting one of the most complete rosters in the league. There's a case to be made for listing the wide receiver position here, and it feels a bit counterintuitive to pick the backs on a Kyle Shanahan-led team. The 49ers were one of the NFL's best rushing outfits last year, and losing Matt Breida doesn't figure to change that. He became disposable following Raheem Mostert's late-season surge. Assuming Mostert remains in the mix, which seems likely given his lack of leverage in his trade request, depth isn't a concern. Tevin Coleman is still productive and Jerick McKinnon is healthy after missing two full seasons to injury. The shortcoming here is how scheme-dependent this bunch is. When push comes to shove, as it did in the second half of the Super Bowl, there isn't a running back on the roster whom you fear.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Brandon Aiyuk, wide receiver. The answer was offensive tackle Trent Williams until Deebo Samuel suffered a foot injury that could cost him multiple games. Fortunately for the 49ers, Aiyuk possesses some of the same skills that made Samuel a rookie star. That's probably why they traded up in the first round to draft Aiyuk while asserting he was at the top of their WR board. His ability to gain yards after the catch, and perhaps some rawness as a route runner, might remind you of Samuel. He'll be counted on to produce in a similar manner from Day 1.

Seattle Seahawks
2019 record: 11-5

Most important position battle: Running back. Competition is constant under Pete Carroll, and the season-ending injuries suffered by Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny last season necessitated reinforcements to add to the battle at this position. The Seahawks signed Carlos Hyde, who will soon turn 30 but is coming off his first 1,000-yard season and averaged 4.4 yards per carry in Houston. This is a potentially formidable trio. Carson is expected to be healthy after again placing among the league's top rushers, fumbling issues aside, before suffering a hip injury. Penny, who's coming off an ACL tear, might need more time before returning to the field, where he's been productive (5.3 yards per carry) in limited usage. None of Seattle's backs are natural pass catchers, so part of the challenge will be determining the best option for situations in which Seattle is going to the air.

Biggest strength on roster: Quarterback. By the most conservative measure, Russell Wilson has blossomed into a top-five player at his position. He doesn't need his first MVP vote to validate that fact. His sustained excellence underscores the befuddlement many have with how the Seahawks operate on offense. They had the sixth-highest rushing play percentage (45.66%) last year, which denoted progress after ranking first in the category a year earlier. It simply doesn't make sense when Wilson is completing nearly two-thirds of his passes while maintaining one of the league's lowest interception rates. This isn't 2012 to 2014. Seattle is better when Wilson is throwing the ball.

Biggest weakness: Offensive line. Still. This is likely why the Seahawks don't call more pass plays, despite how well their QB functions amid chaos. Duane Brown remains a solid left tackle, though he's about to turn 35. Questions abound to his right. Perhaps B.J. Finney and Cedric Ogbuehi can provide marginal upgrades at center and right tackle, respectively, if they win starting jobs at those positions. Seattle has been known for its player development over the past decade, but that hasn't quite been the case of late on the offensive line. 

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Jordyn Brooks, linebacker. The Seahawks' first pick in the 2020 draft is staring down a starting job at strong-side linebacker. It's a demanding position in Carroll's scheme, one that could require a fair amount of pass rushing. The results have been unsatisfactory with Shaquem Griffin in the role. While some viewed Brooks as a reach late in the first round, he has the athletic chops to occupy the Sam spot and perhaps grow into a long-term replacement for K.J. Wright, who's in a contract year.

Follow Adam Maya on Twitter @AdamJMaya.

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