2004 NFC Conference Breakdown – Bet on NFC Football ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
|The 2004 NFC Conference Breakdown|
By Tony George
Unlike my AFC preview, the NFC conference is a different animalwith no clear cut pre-season pick to make as many teams areon the cusp of winning the NFC Championship this year. The Eaglesmade some very interesting moves in the off-season that vaultthem to one of my favorites, so this will be the year to seeif Donavan McNabb is really a big time quarterback or not. ThePanthers must repeat, but they are in the toughest divisionin all the NFL this year, as the NFC South is loaded with parityand up and comers, but do not count out the Panthers, they werenot one hit wonders and have plenty of balance on offense, stresstough defense, and that wins you games.
Everyones pre-season favorite is Seattle in the West,but I do not agree, it is the weakest division in all the NFLand while Seattle will shine, that is also a double edged swordonce they come up against good teams after kicking everyonein rear out West. Time will tell. My dark horse in 2004 is theVikings, who have improved their defense and are going to bea force this year in the NFC if they stay healthy. I look forthem to come out strong in 2004. I also look for the Redskinsto possibly breakout but they are in a tough division and havesome question marks on defense, but look for them to cover somenumbers in 2004. On with the show as I break them down for you.
Philadelphia Eagles (Projected record 11-5)
This is the year that Head coach Andy Reid has no more excusesleft, as he has the best team, on paper in the NFC. With off-seasonpick up Terrell Owens, QB Mcnabb has the tools in the shed toget it done and the defense of this team should be solid. Theylost a ton of guys who were big time studs on defense, suchas Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor and MVP of the defense CarlosEmmons. Javon Kearse was picked up from Tennessee to fill inand numerous draft picks were made to fill in some gaps. Allin all, this team is well coached, with a great QB and depthat running back. Defense is a small question mark, but theyhave the boys to get it done on defense as well. Look at theirdivision, and they should be the crème of the crop in2004 the East without question, barring major injuries.
Players to watch: RB Bruce Perry (rookie), DE Javon Kearse,OL Shawn Andrews (rookie)
On offense McNabb is a solid player and I hope for the Eaglessake he is allowed to run and make some big plays instead ofsitting in the pocket, he is more effective on the move. Goneis Duce Staley and in steps Mike Westbrook who is a good oneand there is plenty of depth at RB top back him up includinglead blocker Jon Ritchie. Terrell Owens was a huge off-seasonfree agent trade and they count on him to make it happen, alongwith WRs Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell. They should havebalance and talent on offense and will keep teams from blitzingbecause of the triple threat they have with McNabb being ableto run. Tight End LJ Smith is a rising star and is a great blockerand likes to find soft spots in the zone and has great handsand will be a threat this season and will be a great 3rd downtype player as a go to guy. This should be a high octane, hardto contain offense in 2004, and I look to them to improve theirscoring average by at least a touchdown or more in 2004.
The defense has some Eagle fans worried, but I think JavonKearse is a great player who simply has been hurt the last 2years and I think he will get back to business. They lost allotin secondary, but the run stopping ability is solid and withlinebackers Jones, Simoneau and Wayne, they should be able toforce people to throw. The linebackers are a weakness but theline is solid and the secondary is above average although theylost two big studs.
Summary: All in all the Eagles should dominate division andget back to the playoffs. They were 7th in scoring defense in2003 and 18th in scoring and that will improve. I look for thisto cover some overs in the early going until oddsmakers catchon here, but they will be able to give up some points and hangtough with their offense. I give a huge plus to the Eagles withtheir specials teams, which are very good with David Akers atkicker who is deadly accurate and they returners and cover teamsare excellent. I look for this years team to take it deepinto the playoffs and win in 2004.
Dallas Cowboys (Projected record 9-7)
Last year Bill Parcells pulled it off again, gettinga makeshift group to overachieve and make the playoffs. Off-seasonwas busy for the cow pokes and they picked up some big headlineswith Drew Henson and Keyshon Johnson. Quarterback will be thebig issue early in pre-season and through the regular season,but they have 3 great wide outs, and a solid offensive scheme.The strength once again will be defense, and the Cowboys arenot pretenders in that department, they are flat out good andwill give teams absolute fits in 2004. A small dark horse herein the NFC with their defensive prowess alone, and if the offensekicks in, the old say How about those Cowboys willbe heard in Dallas.
Players to watch: QBs Carter and Henson, WR Keyshon Johnson,RN Julius Jones (rookie)
Lets get to the burning question and the paradox in Dallas,who starts at QB? I have no doubts when the Cowboys open upat Minnesota, it will be Carter, as Henson is a year away. Dependingon what happens, injuries and other intangibles, I doubt wesee Henson that much except pre-season, but Quincy Carter needsquality reps as well. Regardless, the receiver unit is top shelfwith Antonio Bryant, who needs to step it up, Johnson and TerryGlenn. The tight end position is always one of Parcellsfavorites and Jason Witten is going to be a Pro Bowl playerone of these days, mark my words. The running game, a staplein Parcells diet is going to be a tough nut to crack andthey are counting on rookie Julius Jones out of Notre Dame tostep and take the majority of snaps this year. Depth at runningback and lack of speed is a problem here, and if Jones doesnot prove to be the man, you will have trouble balancing anattack and with QB Carters inconsistent play, could lead toa breakdown on more than one occasion. Add to this the factthat offensive line is average to below average at best, atthis point, and Larry Allen is gone, and you may a serious problemscoring points. Their total offensive ranking was 15th in theNFL in 2003, if they can maintain that level, the Cowboys, withsome breaks, could muster up some points and remain in somegames.
On defense there are no problems. Head defensive coordinatorMike Zimmer is a good one, and they look to add a 3-4 schemethis year. The pass defense was best in the NFL last year andDBs Sammy Davis, Quentin Jammer, Jerry Wilson and TerranceKeil are rock solid, big hitters and well coached and coverreceivers from the get go at the line and are fast, and persistent.The defensive line stunk it up last year and both ends werecut as a result and some fresh faces come in here and with underratedDingle at end, I think this group will allow some experiencedand talented linebackers to make big plays and blitz out ofa 3-4 scheme. Donnie Edwards leads the pack, and Steve Foleyand Randall Godfrey can put you back on your heels. All in all,this defense will be the best unit in the East and will keepthe Cowboys in plenty of games.
Summary: This year is a building year for 2005, but the pokeshave some potential if things fall into place. Better specialteams would help, they traded their punter and their kickeris young and they need a speedy return specialist to step up.This team will go as far as the running game and balance onoffense will take them and their defense will keep them there.Bill Parcells is hands down the best NFL coach there is,and that will play a role again in 2004.
(TIE) Washington Redskins (Projected record 9-7)
What an off-season for Dan Synder and his management team.The fired Steve Spurrier and hired their former head coach JoeGibbs away from NASCAR and also picked up the best running backin the NFL, Clinton Portis, and traded Champ Bailey to get him.This teams has so many ifs, I just get right toit. They could either be really good and surprise everyone andget a wild card birth.
Players to Watch: RB Clinton Portis, QB Mark Brunell, DB ShawnTaylor (rookie)
The Redskins should have some serious firepower once the rustblows off and this offensive unit starts to gel. Mark Brunellreplaces Pat Ramsey at QB for the interim, but Brunellspropensity for getting hurt will come into play. With Colesat WR and Portis at RB, and a veteran QB with a solid backup,and capable receivers in the slot positions, it should verya unit that can get it done at skill positions, the questionmark here is the offensive line and play calling. The line shouldbe solid and with a different scheme other than pass every playboth Jansen and Samuels at tackle should shine, as they areboth very good. All in all, this offense, with Portis, shouldbe a huge threat and will put up plenty of points and move thechains and control the ball well.
On defense they lost Champ Bailey, but remember Fred Smoot?This guy is all world, good cover guy and a big hitter. Theypicked up Mike Barrow from the Giants along with Ralph Brownat DB. Lavar Arrington, Mitchell, Barrow and free agent MarcusWashington form a lethal tandem at linebacker but the problemis the line, which was ranked 24th against the run in 2003,and this must improve. Teams in the East are power running teamswith a physical attack and that is why I rank Dallas ahead ofthese guys, because in the end defense wins game and this willbe the KEY for Washington. The defensive line must step up inorder for them to win. They had injury problems here last year,so we will see an improved unit, how much is the question. Theyhave a great return guy, kicker and punter on special teams,so that also must be figured in,
Summary: Once again, they are a lot of questions surroundingthe Redskins and I am not sure after a very long absence fromthe NFL, Joe Gibbs will have all the pieces in place, he surelyhas the talent. This team will be scoring and allowing plentyof points so the overs may be worth a look earlyand a team with a strong offensive line should be able to pusharound the Skins, at least early in the year. There is a TONof potential and star talent on this team, time will tell, butthey very well could compete with Philly if Dallas falters forthe East Title.
New York Giants (Projected record 7-9)
Another team that had a coaching change and a huge off-seasonwas the Giants. Tom Coughlin took over and the players alreadyhave a distain for him, as he is not a players coach, but acoach that stresses discipline, and the Giants need it. Theypicked up Eli Manning as the #1 pick in the draft and he looksto compete with Kirk Warner form the Rams for the starting jobin 2004. That alone is a paradox for Coach Coughlin, along witha ton of question marks from a 4-12 season where not everyonehere was on the same page most of last season. There is veterantalent, but this team is a work in progress and how these playersrespond to a new system and a new coach does not me that highon them for 2004.
Players to watch: QBs Warner and Manning
On offensive, it starts with the line, and they are weak atbest. Blocking for either QB is crucial as Kurt Warner is usedto a good line and Manning needs one. The line was devastatedwith injuries but picked up Chris Snee in the draft and he shouldstart at right guard and will be a good one, but is inexperiencedand this entire line is pretty young and will struggle againsta good front four. The QB scenario is one that will play outin the pre-season and early regular season and turnovers willplay a part. Tiki Barber at RB is very good, and depth at RBis solid. The receiving corp is good with Toomer and companyand with a healthy Jeremy Shockey back in form, this group willbe some solid targets for either QB to find open at times, dependingon how much time they are given. Speed is a big concern forat wide out, and with all the youth on the line, I doubt thiswill be a high powered offense.
On defense the line is also a huge question as 3 of 4 startersfrom last year are gone and Mike Strahan is the lone holdover,but does he have help? Norman Hand, Fred Robbins and 2003 firstrounder William Joseph must step up. The linebackers are averageat best and Mike Barrow is gone to the Redskins. They pickedup team MVP Carlos Emmons from the Eagles in free agency toreplace him, and he is a stud. The secondary has 3 guys whowere out injuries last year that are all good and once adjusted,should be a pretty good group of cover guys lead by Will Allenand Will Peterson, and Terry Cousin will step in at nickel back.A pretty good group of guys, but given that there was hardlya pass rush last year, sooner or later, guys get open and theGiants have to stop the big play in 2004. Tom Coughlin stressesSpecial teams, and the Giants need SERIOUS help here, and theybrought in numerous special teamers in the off-seasonto help out.
Summary: A rebuilding year in New York, and until the OL andDL show improvement, and Eli Manning steps in and gets someconfidence, the Giants are bringing up the rear. Any team witha strong front four on both sides should beat up on the Giantsearly, and look for this team to turn it over with Warner wholikes to force it and Manning who is inexperienced. The Giantslook to survive in 2004 and hope for the better days in 2005.
Minnesota Vikings (Projected record 11-5)
This could be the year for Mike Tice and the Vikings. Theyhave all the tools in place on offense and while the defenseis a question mark in some places, and they lack depth, thesecondary is very solid and they have enough first stringerswith talent on defense to mount a serious charge not only towin the North but go very deep this year into the Playoffs,and quite frankly could win it all.
Players to watch: CB Antone Winfield, WR Marcus Robinson, DEKenechi Udeze (rookie)
On offense this is a very talents backfield and receiving unit,and has the ability to make big plays from anywhere on the field.Dante Culpepper emerged last year and has worked very hard inthe off-season and is ready to make a claim as one of the topQBs in the NFL. At running back Michael Bennett, OnterioSmith and Moe Williams are a HUGE plus for this team, and theyopen up the NFLs best passing game. This offense is secondto none in the NFC this season. Enough said, the line is solid,they will score a ton of points and were ranked #1 in the NFLlast season, it will continue.
Defense and the results they produce are crucial for successfor the Vikings this season. It will make or break a Super Bowlrun, and I think they have improved enough to make a case, andif they can hold opponents to 17-19 points they could win asmany as 12 games this season and catch home field for the Playoffs.The more the defense can get the ball in offenses hands,the more likely the Vikings are to win. They will defend thepass well with an excellent secondary, who added big hitterWinfield from the Pats to complete an excellent unit, and thelinebackers are athletic and fast and all can lay some wood,although they are young they are very talents and EJ Hendersonis going to be a stud. They picked up Dontarrious Thomas outof Auburn in the second round and he will start this year, sowhile there may be some growing pains, this is a solid unitas well. Add in a great defensive line with Kevin Williams andunderrated Kenny mixon and rookie Udeze out of USC, and thisgroup can stop the run and rush the passer. A solid unit thatwill vastly improve on a 26th overall ranking in 2003.
Summary: There is no doubt this team will come together in2004, and the offense, with un-coverable Randy Moss at wideout will be stellar, and with an improved defense and some muchneeded improvement on special teams (added veteran punter DarrenBennett), this edition of the Vikings are my pick to win theNorth, and dare I say it, challenge Philly for the NFC crown.One way or the other, they will be a play on team against anyonewho has trouble scoring and has a weak pass rush. Look for Bigthings from the Vikings in 2004.
Green Bay Packers (projected record 9-7)
This year the Packers rebuilding process under Mike Shermanshould pay dividends. Always in the mix is Brett Farve, handsdown my favorite player in the NFL, and a gamer for sure. Theyhave rebuilt the secondary and have some real weapons on offenseand return 21 out of 22 starters from last year, and I am surethe defending division champs will not go down easy in any contest.
Players to watch: DB Ahmed Carroll (rookie, WR Javon Walker,DB Mark Roman
ON offense it starts and ends with Farve and RB Ahman Green,plain and simple. I like the receiving unit allot with Fergusonand rising star Walker, who I think is poised for a big yearand Big Bubba Franks at Tight end is a serious weapon and greatrun blocker. There is nothing fancy about this offense but BrettFarve can manufacture more plays on the fly that any other playerI have seen with the exception of John Elway, and his offensiveplayers play hard for him. The depth at RB is a small concernbut Green is always healthy and Davenport is a capable backup.All in all a group of guys who ranked 4th in the NFL last yearand will again be in the Top 5 or 6 in the NFL again, you cancount on it.
On defense many moves were made in the draft this year withDBs and starters McKenzie and Sharper will have some depthsupport and safety Mark Roman was picked up from the Bengalsand he is a very good player who breaks on the ball well, andplays well in a 2-deep cover scheme. Grady Jackson is a 355pound nose tackle that clogs up the middle on the line, andthere is plenty of beef here, but not a ton of lateral speed,so that is an area this defense needs to address. The passingdefense is the big concern ranked 23rd in the NFL last yearand that gap has been closed.
Summary: If the defense can limit a team passing with easeagainst them and getting first downs at will, and get the ballto Farve and company, it will be a wild card year or betterfor Green Bay fans. The drafted a great punter to improve specialteams and I think this team is very well coached, and have oneof the toughest home fields in the NFL, if not the toughest.Some things have to go their way and they need at least a splitwith Minnesota here in the series to hang tough for a playoffsspot. Opening at Carolina will be a good measuring stick, andtheir second half schedule is favorable, and a December 24thshowdown at Minnesota should determine the division. The Packwill be back and a player in 2004.
Detroit Lions (projected record 8-8)
In Matt Millens 3rd year as GM, he has little excusenot to show massive improvement this season. Steve Mariuccilooks to break a streak of 3 straight years without a road win,which will happen this year, and looks to break the stigma ofa losing attitude for the Lions this season. They have somegood players, a possible rising star in QB Harrington and pickedup the best receiver in the draft in Roy Williams out of Texas.They will earn some respect this year and teams will begin notto overlook them with some young talent a great attitude. Mariuccitakes chances and has some horses to do it in 2004.
Players to watch: QB Harrington, RB Kevin Jones (rookie), WRRoy Williams (rookie)
On offense, there is talent, but it is young and the offenseis in a very tough division to break in new talent. This isa make or break year for Joey Harrington and he has some serioustalent around him. Back up Mike McManhon is a very capable guyand could start for some NFL teams. Matt Millen has put up agood front for Virginia Tech RB star Kevin Jones and he wasa great College player, time will tell, but from reports I haveread he is impressing everyone. With Williams a future starand Tia Streets, Charlie Rodgers and speedster to emerge again,Az-Zahair Hakim, the weapons through the air are very good.Casey Fitzsimmons is a good tight end and the line is solid.Getting a running game going and seeing if Jones can adjustto the NFL will be key, but if they can get him 80-90 yardsa game and open it up, this could be a big play type team. Depthat WR, RB and QB is good, so I look for the Lions to be ableto backdoor more than a few in 2004.
I love the linebackers from the Lions this year and gettingTeddy Lehman out of Oklahoma in the late second round was ahuge steal. They also picked up Jeff Gooch from the Bucs andBrock Marion from the Dolphins to help out in the secondaryto improve from a 28th ranked pass defense last year. This teamhas a good line
And DE Porcher is a good pass rusher. They were good at stoppingthe run last year and have the ability to force teams to pass,unfortunately last year teams did with success. That will changein 2004
Summary: I think Mariucci is one of the better coaches in theNFL, and is great with young players. This winning attitudeshould invigorate a team which is known as a loser and willmake them a contender this year to win 8 games and build for2005. I think they will cover some spreads this year and winsome games they should not. If they force some turnovers andutilize some young talent and build confidence, the Lions willroar in 2004.
Chicago Bears (projected record 6-10)
The key word is rebuild for the Bears, althoughthey will not admit it, there will be a huge learning curveand some serious growing pains in the talent laden North divisionfor the once might Bears. Lovie Smith takes over a trouble franchisethis season and must break in a new quarterback in Rex Grossman,ex-Florida star. Take into account that eight of the coacheson this team have no NFL experience, and you have the makingsof a team that will have to learn together and I give them littlechance to do much of anything this year.
Players to watch: QB Grossman, DT Tommie Harris (rookie), DBCharles Tillman
On offense Rex Grossman must step up and assume the role ofleader, and he has some skills. He has good field awarenessand a very strong arm, but lacks size and speed although hecan step up out of the pocket and make plays. A work in progressthis year. Depth is also a problem with Jon Quinn and CraigKrenzel out of Ohio State. The RB stable is average but ThomasJones may emerge out of the shadows as he has shown signs ofgreatness and has plenty of talent. The receivers are averageat best with Marty Booker leading the way, and David Terrellneeds to realize you have to play every down to make it to thetop in the NFL. The line is solid but lacks big size, but thereis some depth. Ranked 28th in the NFL last year on offense,this unit possibly could get to 20th, but that is a stretchuntil Grossman learns a new system and gets some experience.
On defense Brian Urlacher will be the focal point and witha new three backer set, and a lateral type scheme, should helptheir star player make some plays. Last year the best playeron the field did not force or have a single turnover! An NFLlow 18 sacks as a team last year and this must improve, sinceit is the Bears main weakness. They are a solid unit, with goodDBs, above average linebackers and a decent line. Thenew scheme employed by Ron Rivera, new coordinator, puts emphasison the front four to rush the passer. If they can get pressureon opposing quarterbacks this defense can be dominant. Theywere ranked 14th in the NFL, and I expect about the same thisseason.
Summary: A rebuilding year for the Bears where the defensehas to keep them in games to compete. The inexperience of thecoaching staff is a big concern and a sophomore QB is anotherand lack of depth at skill is another. They also have four brutalgames to open the season, which they could be 0-4 heading intoweek 5. Next year for the Bears.
Seattle Seahawks (Projected record 10-6)
Many have Seattle winning it all, but I do not see it. Tooeasy of a division to walk through and hit the road, where theywere a paltry 2-6 last year to play in the Playoffs. Just toomuch to ask for Holmgren and company this year. They also hada weak schedule last year and when they played someone tough,they found a way to lose. The schedule this year is tough, andthey have not won a playoff game since 1984. They drafted wellthis year, have some offensive firepower and have a good coachwho better win this year or else. They should be a playoff teamand they should win a game for the first time in 10 years inthe post season.
Players to watch: DB Bobby Taylor, DT Marcus Tubbs (rookie)
On offense there is no shortage of options with QB Hasselbeck,RB Alexander and WR Koren Robinson. Depth is also a plus forthe offense and a very good offensive line will again open holesfor Alexander and give pass protection. All in all, a top notchunit with Mike Holmgren calling the plays and taking advantageof defense depleted division.
On defense, it needed improvement and should have it. Ray Rhodesis a guru and will have some pretty good players to work with.The question mark is middle linebacker, and they have yet tosign a free agent with star power as planned but do have ChadBrown and Anthony Simmons, and more than likely Orlando Huffat MLB, unless DD Lewis pushes him. Average at best for LBs,but above average now for the secondary that was ranked 27thagainst the pass in 2003. Bobby Taylor from the Eagles was signed;he is a top 5 cover man in the NFL. I also expect last yearsfirst rounder Marcus Trufant to get his sea legs this year androokie Mike Boulware to step up somewhere in backfield as well.The line was boosted by first rounder Tubbs out of Texas andhe will be a stud, but has a small learning curve to deal with,but he is talented and quick. A solid unit that cannot giveup the deep ball this year, and must improve on that aspect.Did I mention Grant Wistrom at DE? He is a big time playmakerand a leader. The Rams dropped the ball by letting him go.
Summary: This team will walk through the West and should competefor a home field playoff berth. The offense should be solid,but depth on defense is a problem if the injury bug strikes,especially in secondary. They should be undefeated before playingNew England on the road on October 17th, that WILL BE THE MEASURINGSTICK. If THEY can improve on punt and kick returns it wouldbe a huge plus for them this year. Mike Holmgren is runningout of time and excuses, and he has the horses to make a runin 2004, but can they win on the road? Probably a go againstteam on the road against quality opponents until they show medifferent. The should go into the playoffs and make some noise.
St. Louis Rams (projected record 9-7)
Mike Martz needs to get back to coaching and quit making boneheadcalls, as he did in the 2003 playoffs to Carolina. He gamblesway too much and his talent level on this team is not what itonce was. Decent draft will help depth and Marc Bulger takesover at QB as Kurt Warner was traded to the Giants. HopefullyMartzs ego stays out of the way here this year. It wasa detriment to the team last season. Lovie Smith last yearsdefensive coordinator was sent to Chicago to take over thatmess and Steve Fairchild steps in with a base 2 deep cover schemeon defense. A quality team that has big play capability andshould contend with Seattle in the West.
Players to watch: RB Steve Jackson (rookie)
On offense Bulger gets the nod with no pressure or politicsthis year. Marshall Faulk is in the twilight of his career androokie Steve Jackson out of Oregon State will back up, and heis a good player, very elusive and quick. The receivers areled by Torry Holt and Issac Bruce with competent backups anda good tight end. The line is solid. The Rams ranked 30th inthe NFL in rushing, and you cannot win games when everyone knowsyou are throwing. This is a serious key for St. Louis to winmore than 8 to 9 games this year, they have to settle down andrun the football, or throw to the backs in spread sets. Thatwill make or break the Rams, the running game; we all know theyhave a vertical passing game.
On defense they ranked 16 in the NFL last year, but were runon repeatedly. This must change and losing Grant Wistrom wasa huge hit and Seas Moran was brought in to replace him, goodluck with that deal! Inconsistency from the linebackers mustimprove and matching a 4th place ranking in sacks will be hardto repeat. This is an average unit that somehow forces turnoverslike crazy due to a solid secondary, they ranked #1 in the NFLin takeaways last year. They are deep in secondary again andWilliams at safety with experience and leadership is a hugeplus.
Summary: This team needs to run the football, and if they can,they will be a good team and they should be able to make a playoffrun, but given Mike Martz ability to grab defeat from the jawsof victory, I am not sold on him out coaching other big timecoaches like Holmgren and others out of division when it counts,that is the bottom line.
Arizona Cardinals (projected record 6-10)
Dennis Green steps back into the ring this year and looks torebuild the Cards back to respectability. This will not happenovernight, although Coach Greens goal was to make thePlayoffs this year. That may prove difficult, but there is plentyof young talent to work with and the process of motivating playersis his specialty.
Players to watch: WR Larry Fitzgerald (rookie), DE BertrandBerry
On offense expect 3 wide receiver sets and a dose of West coaststyle offense. Actually when you look at the RBs and WRsthere is some depth and emerging talent, surprisingly, theyjust might score points in this system. Last year Anquan Boldenhad a good year and will be a great receiver who can do it all,and he runs well after catches. With #1 pick Fitzgerald andNate Poole, this is a solid group, and tight end Freddie Jonesis a top 5 tight end, so this makes the West Coast style offenselook appealing. Quarterback will be key and Josh McCown willbe the man, as they passed on a QB with the 3rd pick in thedraft and then got Shawn King from the Bucs who is a capable#2 guy and drafted John Navarre out of Michigan in the 7th round.There is an abundance of talent to throw at, and with some blockingand running ability with Smith, Shipp and rookie Josh Scoobyout of Kansas State, the offense should produce more than lastplace in the NFL in scoring offense like last year.
The defense was ranked 26th in the NFL last year and this hasto improve. The front four should be good and defensive coordinatorClancy Pendergast has some deep talent at rush end to figureout a good combo. Look for Kyle Vandenbosh, off injury, to makea solid return, and Bertrand Berry to make a splash as well.A no name group of linebackers led by Ronald McKinnon has toimprove and the secondary was shredded last year. The secondaryof Macklin, Wilson and Starks has to improve, ranked 30th lastyear in pass defense. This entire group is a work in progressbut the line is good and there are some tools in the shed.
Summary: A new coach and system will pump some fresh bloodinto the Cards. Getting fan support, getting some wins earlyunder their belt will be crucial. Ranking 30th in turnoverslast year has to improve as they need to make their own luckand have some things happen, and Dennis Green stresses specialteams as well to make some plays so that area will improve aswell. It has been awhile since Denny walked the sidelines, letshope he has the patience to get thi9s thing going with his style.
San Francisco 49ers (projected record 5-11)
This team is talent depleted due to salary cap issues, andquite frankly Dennis Erickson is not that good of an NFL coach.A new quarterback to deal with, Ted Tollner will have his handsfull with Tim Rattay and or Ken Dorsey. Lets get rightto it with this team.
On offense quarterback Garcia was traded, and Tim Rattay injureda groin in mini camp and may not play in the pre-season untillate, if at all. That is a problem, so Ken Dorsey will pickup the slack and reports I have read say the ex-Miami star hasstepped up big time. He may even start this season! Cody Pickettout of Washington was drafted as well and will complete a decentroster of QBs, not great but decent. The running backduties fall on underachiever Kevin Barlow and fullback FredBeasley, who is a Pro Bowler. The receivers are young, and Owensand Streets have been traded. Rashaun Woods was drafted outof Oklahoma State and he will be a stud in the future and BrandonLloyd is an up and comer, but depth and experience haunt thisentire offense which was ranked 5th last year in the NFL andthat will fall dramatically in 2004.
On defense I am very concerned about athletic ability of thefront four led by Bryant Young. They are big but not quick,and in this division, that is a mismatch in many scenarios.Andre Carter dropped off the face of the earth last year andmounting a pass rush is key for them to improve on, and withoutit the secondary will get shredded. The secondary lacks speed,and once again, in this division that is a key. The strengthis at linebacker on defense led by Petersen, Smith and Urlich.These guys are a good group and will have to make a ton of tacklesthis season.
Summary: Against a good passing team, the 49ers will have troubleand against a good front four. I am not sold on the QB positionand the heart of this team is in question and the ability ofErickson to rally the troops will be in the spotlight. A goagainst team due to inexperience and lack of depth in 2004.
Carolina Panthers (projected record 9-7)
After a near miss in the Super Bowl, the Panthers road to theNFC Championship will be much harder in 2004, but not impossible.John Fox is a great coach, but free agent losses Terry Cousin,Kevin Dyson, Greg Favors, Reggie Howard, and Todd Stussie willtake their toll. I am a big fan of Jake Delhome at quarterback,and the running game here is outstanding. The essential partsare in place, but a tough schedule and other teams awarenessof the Panthers are going to be factors this year, but withthat said, I think they will win the division and make the playoffsand contend deep into them.
Players to Watch: LB Jessie Armstead, DB Chris Gamble (rookie),RB Deshon Foster
On offense this team has some serious firepower in terms ofplaying physical up front and two great running backs, I figurethe best 1-2 punch at RB in the NFL with Foster and Davis. Theline is solid and has a few changes that will not affect them.There is depth at QB behind Delhome with Rodney Peete and ChrisWeinke, and the receivers are very good with Steve Smith, Muhammadand rookie Keary Colbert out of USC, along with utility guyRicky Proehl and 3 other young guys that will compete for the4 and 5 spots. They can balance an attack, they have speed,good hands and return the 7th ranked rushing offense in theNFL, and I do not see them dropping off, and contrary to popularopinion out there, Delhome is the real deal and not a one hitwonder like Kurt Warner was a few years ago. They will eat upthe clock and wear a weak front four down quickly.
On defense the Panthers were very good last year, but thereis a drop off this year, but they still will be strong enoughto get it done, though depth is a slight problem. With a clockeating offense, the defense should stay fresh and healthy. Atlinebacker there are some question marks after the departureof Greg Favors, as Foxs old buddy from his Giants days,Brandon Short, was brought in. It is still uncertain how MarkFields will be after recovering from Hodgkins disease,but if he is healthy, he will be a good player again. Dan Morganalso is in the mix and he is quick and a big hitter. This unitneeds to gel quickly and the secondary needs some help so theydrafted Chris Gamble out of Ohio State at CB. Mike Minter leadsand undersized crew of DB’s and this area while a weakness,it still slightly above average. The front four is as good asany in the NFL, and with the speed at LB, will stuff the run,and Mike Rucker can pass rush very well and was a Pro Bowlerfrom this line along with Kris Jenkins. They are also deep onthe DL, and that factors in situations that favor the Panthersagainst any team with a weak front four on offense.
Summary: This is a good team from top to bottom, and keepingtheir sights set on the top prize, after a Cinderella year willbe on Head Coach Foxs top priority list. If Jake Delhomehas a year even close to last year and Davis and Foster stayhealthy, this team has as much potential as last year, but thisdivision is parity filled and Atlanta with Mike Vick will bea tough foe competing for the division title. Tough games atGreen Bay to open up and Kansas City could have them 1-1 or0-2 to start out along with games at Philly and Seattle alongthe way. If they can weather the storm and get out of some ofthose road tests at .500 and win games at home like they usuallydo, the Panthers will defend their title and vie for a top spotin the NFC, but there are numerous bumps in the road this yearthat were not there last year, time will tell. Playing againsta team that cannot run the ball well, the Panthers will be aplay on team this season.
Atlanta Falcons (Tie) (Projected record 8-8)
Jim Mora Jr. makes his debut in the NFL as head man with ahealthy Mike Vick at QB. That has to be a huge plus for thisteam, who has the potential TO BE A SPOILER IN 2004. The Managementmade some moves in the off-season to get some receivers forhim and his on field playmaking ability is well documented.This team was dead last in defense in the NFL last year, andwhile improved, it will still be a weakness. This will be oneof the funnest teams to watch this year in the NFL and afterwinning only 5 games last year, should get to 8, possibly 9wins this season and compete for the division crown.
Players to Watch: QB Mike Vick, DB Deangelo Hall (rookie),RB Warrick Dunn, WR Mike Jenkins (rookie)
On offense it starts and ends with QB Vick. He is a specialplayer who is almost from another planet when healthy. He hasa new group of receivers this year including Peerless Price,Dez White, rookie Jenkins out of Ohio State. A great weaponwho is emerging is tight end Alge Crumpler who is a big target,has good hands and speed and runs well after contact and cabblock. The running game is questionable at best with Dunn offof foot surgery and TJ Duckett not playing to potential. Youcan consider Vick a runner, but I doubt Mora wants him in theopen field to risk injury, as we saw what happened last yearto the Birds when he went down. Depth at QB was address withVirginia star Matt Schuab drafted in the 3rd round, and Ty Dettmerwas also signed. This should be a spread type offensive lettingQB Vick to do his thing, and it may be hard to stop, but theweakness is a power running game, and the line is average atbest.
The defense needs some serious improvement as they were simplydeplorable last year, dead last in the NFL. End Rod Colemanwas brought in from the Raiders and he is a good run stopperand pass rusher, and Pat Kerney returns after a great year in2003. Injuries and question marks surround the depth at line,but they should be above average in 2004. The linebackers areaverage at best with Brooking, Draft and Duncan. Demario Williamsout of Nebraska was drafted and he was all world in Collegeand should make an impact here, he is a great blitz scheme player,I watched him for 3 years at Nebraska dominate games. The secondarywas boosted by free agents Aaron Beasley ands Jason Websterand they should mount up a pass defense this year. An averageunit overall that will not finish dead last in the NFL thisyear, I assure you. The special teamers are good and willcontribute, Feeley is a great kicker.
Summary: This team will go as far as Mike Vick takes them,and their defense takes them. There is no where to go but up,but I expect there guys to put up points this year, but allowsome as well, as I look for the Overs this yearto be in play with this group. It will be exciting in Atlantathis year and the Birds may just take wing. Should be a betterthan average team by seasons end.
(Tie) New Orleans Saints (projected record 8-8)
The Saints are an enigma wrapped in a riddle. The have talentgalore and no one is one the same page, and unless Jim Hasletgets them in the playoffs, I will assume he will be gone atseasons end. The offense can get it done big time, but seemto shoot themselves in the foot at every turn. The defense cannotstop anyone running the ball, so a new coach and some playerswere brought in. This team is VERY capable of winning this division,and also finishing last.
Players to watch: DE Will Smith (rookie), LB Sedrick Hodge
On offense there is Aaron Brooks who can do it all, and threwonly 8 interceptions last year out of over 500 attempts, troubleis he fumbles. We have depth here at quarterback. Duce McAllisteris all world and his backups are more than your average players,and Sam Gash was brought in to replace a huge loss at FB, TerrellSmith was lost to the Browns and he was as good as lead blockeras there is in the NFL. The receivers need to step up and provethey are the NFLs elite, with Horn and Stallworth andJerome Pathon as the top 3 and they picked up local Devery Hendersenfrom LSU in the draft. The line is better than average, butallowed 36 sacks last year, so they need to plug that hole.If they can keep stupid mistakes down, this offense could bethe best in the division, and once again I hope they reach theirpotential, because if they do, look out!
On defense the Saints could not stop the run to save theirlives last year, ranked 27TH in the NFL. The line play is KEYfor the Saints this year because their linebackers stink andSedrick Hodge has been a bust. When your secondary has to makeall the tackles, you know you need help up front and in themiddle. Rush ends Will Smith and Brian Young and Jonathan Sullivan,form a lethal rush tandem and that spells trouble for teamswho rely on the pass because the secondary here is very goodand talented, not to mention deep. Specials teams are solidas well; kicker John Carney is one of the best.
SUMMARY: When you add all the facts, the Saints look extremelytempting on paper to win this division, but until I see a newapproach to winning from Haslett and his staff, which was apriority in the off-season, I cannot back a team who finds wayto lose with vast talent and Pro Bowl type players. Could thisbe the year? Look for the Saints to come out and play well,a go with team in 2004, and possible playoff contender.
Tampa Bays Bucs (projected record 8-8)
Dare I say it, but this team won a Super Bowl two years agoand now bring up the rear in this division. Jon Gruden willbe tested and measured this year with a team with 20 new playersand the core and leaders of the defense, John Lynch and WarrenSapp are gone. An aging and injury riddled offense, with talent,must improve their balance and protect of Brad Johnson thisyear. There are a ton of question marks and so many new adjustments;it will cost the once mighty Bucs early. The early scheduleis brutal and will put them behind the eight ball, so I havemany reservations about this team, and in a talent laden division,it will be a struggle to win 8 or 9 games.
Players to watch: DB Jermaine Phillips, RB Charlie Gardner,OT Todd Stussie
On offense, Brad Johnson faltered late last year, and the runninggame did not exist, ranked 24th in the NFL. Charlie Garner willbe counted on a great deal this year as a free agent pick-upand receivers Jurevicius, Clayton, Galloway and McCardell areas good any unit in the NFL, but they are aging and on the downside.Mike Alstot returns this year too, but can the line block? ToddStussie was brought in to anchor the line among other draftpicks, and there is depth at QB with Chris Simms and Brian Gresise.Look for a run oriented attack to set up slant routes and quickstrikes, but also look for time for this unit to gel. The linewill also need time to adjust, but they are average at best.
On defense, Monte Kiffen will have his work cut out for him,and the Bucs lost a ton of talent here, although Sapp was overrated.The teams runs a base 2 deep cover better than anyone, but thisyear will prove tough. Anthony McFarland will replace Sapp,first rounder in 1999, and he is capable. Ronde Barber is agood cover guy and Phillips fills in for the great and departedJohn Lynch at safety. Brian Kelly at OLB is a good one and themiddle of the defense is solid. A few adjustments and findinga new leader on the field will cause a learning curve here,but overall, this is a pretty good group and a top 15 type defenseonce they adjust.
Summary: This team has potential and Gruden knows how to getthe most of his players, but there are some growing pains andwith the age of the offensive skill players, I think injurieswill once again haunt this team, not to mention some adjustmentswith tons of players coming and going in the off-season. Forthis reason I think the Bucs will struggle early, but come onlate. This will be a .500 ball club you can count to be strongat seasons end, IF they stay healthy.
The NFC Will prove to be a parity filled conference with literally6 or 7 teams here that could win the NFC Championship, unlikethe AFC where 2 or 3 teams clearly are better than everyoneelse. There are many teams I ranked 3rd here that could winit all, and you more than likely will find opportunities inconference games the second time around.
Tony George was ranked #1 in the USA in the NFL last year atNational Sports Monitor winning 69% ATS of his games and wonthe 2003 Ultimate Handicapping Challenge. Tony can be reachedat 800-562-1017 this season or find him at www.sportsaudioshows.com