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NFC West training camp preview: Key issues, players to watch

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It might feel like the dog days of summer for football fans, but the 2017 campaign is rapidly coming down the pike. With training camps opening later this month, Around The NFL's Conor Orr, Kevin Patra and Marc Sessler are examining the key issues for each team in this division-by-division series. Here's the NFC West camp primer:

Arizona Cardinals

Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 21).
Location: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona.

Most important position battle: Who will back up Carson Palmer? The veteran-heavy Cardinals have plenty of roster spots locked up on both sides of the ball. Not under center, though, where Carson Palmer's longtime backup, Drew Stanton, will tussle with free-agent addition Blaine Gabbert. "The arm, the intelligence is there ... I'm kind of excited about the future for him," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said of Gabbert. Six years younger than the 33-year-old Stanton, Gabbert offers solid athleticism, but has yet to prove he can lead a team consistently. With Palmer set to turn 38 in December, Arizona's backup is bound to play an important role for the Cardinals in 2017.

Newcomer to watch: LB Haason Reddick. Arizona's first-round pick is a viable candidate to start as early as Week 1. With Deone Bucannon still recovering from ankle surgery, Reddick saw plenty of snaps this offseason as the starting "money linebacker" next to veteran Karlos Dansby. A defensive end and outside linebacker at Temple, the rookie is being asked to learn a new role on the inside, but head coach Bruce Arians believes Reddick is ready, saying: "As much as we've thrown at him, it's been pretty good."

Looming camp question: Will the defense hold up? The same could be asked of Palmer, but the significant turnover on defense is a concern. Arizona's offseason got off to a tumultuous start with the free-agent defections of lineman Calais Campbell, safeties Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger, cornerback Marcus Cooper and inside linebacker Kevin Minter. Adding Reddick and rookie safety Budda Baker helps on paper, but the Cardinals still have lots to sort out. Camp will provide early clues about whether this unit is ready to hold down the fort in 2017.

Los Angeles Rams

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 26) and veterans (July 28).
Location: University of California, Irvine, California.

Most important position battle: Two rookie pass-catchers? The Rams under Jeff Fisher did a comprehensibly awful job developing their gaggle of young targets on offense. Thankfully, new coach Sean McVay arrives from Washington with a reputation for maximizing his pass-catchers. He'll need to make that happen right away with rookie tight end Gerald Everett and first-year receiver Cooper Kupp, who both have a legitimate shot to start. With a good camp, Kupp figures to play in the slot alongside Robert Woods and Tavon Austin. The Rams like what they see so far, with offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur saying of Kupp: "He's an extremely polished route runner, got great hands. You can tell he works at his craft each and every day. He does a great job." Everett, meanwhile, will try to fend off an inexperienced tight end group after the Rams let Lance Kendricks walk. With McVay leaning heavily on the position, Everett and veteran Tyler Higbee should both see meaningful action out of the gate.

Newcomer to watch: Head coach Sean McVay. "Hard Knocks" and "All or Nothing" revealed a team somewhat lost under Fisher, the longtime coach who made a cottage industry of going 7-9 with the milquetoast Rams. No more. McVay hits the scene as an exuberant, boyish, Gruden-esque leader with plenty on his plate. We'll touch on the development of passer Jared Goff below, but it goes beyond the quarterback. The Rams' offense has been an unwatchable mess for years. McVay was brought to Los Angeles to grow Goff, revive running back Todd Gurley and fully jumpstart the attack while handing the keys on defense to wily, defensive sensei Wade Phillips. It will be fascinating to watch how McVay -- just 31 -- handles the pressure of Hollywood.

Looming camp question: Jared Goff ready to rise? Spin it any way you please. Goff was a massive disappointment as a rookie. That had plenty to do with the under-performing players around him, but Goff was slow to learn the offense in camp and never looked ready for prime time when he finally hit the field. We ask rookie quarterbacks to develop overnight -- an unfair demand -- but there must be tangible growth from Goff come September. Anything less and fans will pounce on this second-year player in a hurry.

San Francisco 49ers

Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 27).
Location: SAP Performance Facility, Santa Clara, California.

Most important position battle: Sorting out the offensive line. Those Jim Harbaugh-led Niners teams that dominated cowed defenses with a mauling front five feel like a fading myth in 2017. Today, at least four of five O-line positions will be up for grabs when camp gets started. While Joe Staley is a lock at left tackle, first-time head coach Kyle Shanahan must make sense of what's left. A flock of new additions -- guard Brandon Fusco, center Jeremy Zuttah and tackle Garry Gilliam -- will battle for starting spots over the likes of Zane Beadles and Daniel Kilgore and John Theus. After finishing 31st in total offense the past two seasons, the Niners need this unit to awaken. On a positive note, Shanahan is one of the better line tutors around.

Newcomer to watch: DE Solomon Thomas. When the Niners made Thomas their first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, it only upped expectations for one of the NFC's more promising front sevens. Set to line up alongside the mountainous duo of DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, Thomas gives the 49ers a top-shelf run defender and pocket pusher who has drawn comparisons to Seattle's Michael Bennett. After he spent the offseason learning from DeMarcus Ware, Thomas has the chance to make an instant impact in San Francisco.

Looming camp question: Can Kyle Shanahan make the offense tick? We've gotten this far without mentioning the Niners will be led by quarterback Brian Hoyer. That should appropriately set expectations, but Shanahan worked well with Hoyer in Cleveland for three quarters of a season in 2014 before the wheels fell off. Over the next two years in Atlanta, Shanahan emerged as one of the game's premier play-callers and now has the chance to put his stamp on San Francisco. Adding productive wideout Pierre Garcon, versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk and a flock of veterans, the 49ers have a chance to surprise some teams on offense this season.

Seattle Seahawks

Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 29).
Location: Virginia Mason Athletic Center, Renton, Washington.

Most important position battle: Backfield pecking order. Seattle's running back room is bubbling over with challengers. It starts with free-agent addition Eddie Lacy, the former Packers thumper who will be asked to fend off third-year back Thomas Rawls. It's possible this duo could split carries all season, but Seattle hasn't forgotten about Rawls dominating the Lions in January with 161 yards at nearly six yards per clip in the Wild Card Round. Second-year back C.J. Prosise figures to play a major role on passing downs, while Alex Collins will aim to erase memories of his quiet rookie campaign. This looms as one of the juiciest battles in the NFC.

Newcomer to watch: DT Malik McDowell. Beyond Lacy -- the most intriguing new face in Seattle -- this year's Seahawks have a handful of young players with upside. Second-round defensive lineman Malik McDowell gives coach Pete Carroll a massively framed specimen -- he's 6-foot-6, 299 pounds -- who can rush the quarterback from all over the field. Defensive play-caller Kris Richard is already dreaming up schemes for McDowell, telling SeattlePI.com, "Being able to either have him at 3-technique or at end, whichever we decide to play him, there's going to be a level of athleticism there that it's been a while since we've had that."

Looming camp question: Mentally ready for another title run? There's no doubting the talent in Seattle. If Arizona stumbles, the 'Hawks could run away with the West. Still, the franchise is coming off a rocky offseason laced with trade rumors surrounding All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman and teammates asking if quarterback Russell Wilson is treated differently than the rest of the locker room. Carroll has deftly dealt with thorny controversies before, so he's earned our trust. Super Bowl windows are always tighter than expected, though, and Seattle must find a way to nuke any in-house issues.

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