NFC preseason capsules, by division:
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (16-3)
OPEN CAMP: July 25, Renton, Washington.
LAST YEAR: Seattle won first Super Bowl title with 43-8 dismantling of Denver. Had best defense in NFL led by All-ProsRichard Sherman and Earl Thomas. Seahawks got another standout season from RB Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson continued progression toward elite quarterback. Matched franchise record for regular-season victories (13), won six times away from Seattle.
CAMP NEEDS: Not much for champs to solve. Defensive line depth took hit in free agency, but Seattle has young talent that rarely saw the field last season. Deciding starter at OLB between Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin. Finding WR depth behind Percy Harvin and Doug Baldwin. RT and LG will be positions to watch on offensive line.
EXPECTATIONS: Expectations haven't changed. Now, narrative has gone from whether Seattle is legit Super Bowl contender to can Seahawks be first team in a decade to repeat? Locked up Sherman and Thomas with lucrative extensions. Wilson should continue to improve and offense has impressive speed with Harvin healthy and addition of Richardson. Only lingering concern is whether Lynch's desire for reworked contract will become distraction. Otherwise, Seahawks are favored in NFC.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (14-5)
OPEN CAMP: July 24, Santa Clara, California.
LAST YEAR: 49ers made third straight trip to NFC title game but fell just short of return trip to Super Bowl when Colin Kaepernick threw interception in end zone in final minute of 23-17 loss at Seattle.
CAMP NEEDS: Face questions at linebacker, where All-Pro NaVorro Bowman could miss half-season recovering from knee injury suffered in NFC title game. Pass rusher Aldon Smith could face a suspension (and jail time) for off-field troubles. 49ers also have to deal with disgruntled veterans TE Vernon Davis and OL Alex Boone, who both skipped entire offseason program as they seek new contracts.
EXPECTATIONS: 49ers open their $1.2 billion stadium this season with hopes of adding that sixth Super Bowl title that has been so close in first three seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. Kaepernick has extension, also has more receiving options with additions of Johnson and Lloyd, a healthy Michael Crabtree, as well Anquan Boldin and Davis when he reports. Offense might have to shoulder bigger load with Bowman sidelined and stalwart DL Justin Smith starting to show signs of aging at 34. Hovering over everything: Harbaugh's status as he seeks lucrative extension before entering final year of his deal in 2015.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (10-6)
OPEN CAMP: July 25, Glendale, Arizona.
LAST YEAR: In Bruce Arians' first season as coach, compiled best record since 2009, failed to reach playoffs in tough NFC West. Defense dominated, most significantly in 17-10 late-season victory at eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle. Offense, with Carson Palmer still learning Arians' intricate system, improved over last half of schedule, led by dynamic rookie RB Andre Ellington, receiving duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.
CAMP NEEDS: Washington and Dansby were heart of defense that ranked sixth, but Washington suspended for year for violating NFL substance abuse policy. Dansby departed via free agency. Second-year pro Kevin Minter, who played one down on defense last season, is penciled in at one spot. Other seems to be open competition. Also competition at RG, RT and TE. Cardinals plan expanded role for Ellington as feature back. Also are looking for third receiver to replace Roberts.
EXPECTATIONS: Cardinals are thinking playoffs, but need better record than 2-4 within division of 2014.
ST. LOUIS RAMS (7-9)
OPEN CAMP: July 25, St. Louis.
LAST YEAR: Although end result was seven wins again, coach Jeff Fisher's second season further distanced franchise from five-year nadir. QB Sam Bradford's season-ending knee injury in Week 7 forced emphasis on ground game, and fifth-round pick Zac Stacy just missed 1,000 yards. DE Robert Quinn had franchise-record 19 sacks for defense overly dependent on pass rush to mask deficiencies in secondary.
CAMP NEEDS: Bradford and LT Jake Long, also coming off knee surgery, will be eased into mix. Robinson, who starred at left tackle for Auburn's national runner-up, was second overall pick, but begins NFL career at guard. Ultra-aggressive coordinator Williams will begin to put his stamp on defense.
EXPECTATIONS: Fisher and GM Les Snead deserve kudos for making Rams trail blazers as first NFL team to draft openly gay player, Sam, a move that figures to build unity. Rebuilding plan fueled by Robert Griffin III trade produced bevy of young starters; franchise could be is ready to post first winning season since 2003, although competition is rugged in NFC West.
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