NFC SOUTH CHAMPS-CAROLINA PANTHERS
KEY ADDITION: Ken Lucas. One of the weakest links of Carolina was their secondary. Signing Lucas locks that down. Lucas joins Chris Gamble and Ricky Manning to fine tune an already stellar defense.
KEY SUBTRACTION: Mark Fields. Yeah, Mushin Muhammed seems to be the guy for this spot...but the fact that those big play guys are back means his production won't be missed as much. Fields will sit this season out as his Hodgkin’s Disease has resurfaced. Last year, his first season back after first dealing with it, he turned in an All Pro campaign. This news is even more jarring after the death of Sam Mills.
KEY PLAYER: Steve Smith.With Mushin Muhammad gone and Keary Colbert on the other side [nice season rook!], Smith has to pick up where he left off in 2003. Our for nearly all of last season, Smith’s speed was sorely missed. While Muhammad was more of a possession receiver, Smith stretched defenses and makes it easier for Jake Delhomme to find his other targets.
OUTLOOK:Despite all of the injuries last year, the Panthers went into Week 17 with a good shot at making the playoffs. If Smith stays healthy, they can still keep their roll going. Sure, Deshawn Foster and Stephen Davis are iffy...but last year showed how a great stable of backs they have [which Eric Shelton was added to]. I like them to win the division.
KEY ADDITION: Ed Harwell. The former Raven is a huge pickup for the Falcons. Joining Williams and Brooking at LB should help mask some of their secondary deficiencies.
KEY SUBTRACTION: Jay Feely.While they did sign Todd Peterson to kick...Feely was an excellent kicker for the Georgia Dome....and kickers like that are tough to lose when 7 of your games last year were decided by 4points or less.
KEY PLAYER: Michael Jenkins.This second year WR will most likely take the reigns as Vick's top receiver [aside from TE Alge Crumpler]. With Brian Finneran getting the opponent's top corner, Pearless Price in the doghouse and Roddy White a rookie....Jenkins should emerge as Vick's main outside threat.
OUTLOOK: A lot hinges on how well Michael Vick handles Year 2 of the West Coast offense. The team did very well considering their passing attack was abysmal. One glaring factor why I don't have them winning this division is their schedule. With Philly, Minny and New England as their first home games and the fact that this is most likely the best division in the NFC...I see a minor swoon. However, the Falcons should get their first EVER back-to-back winning seasons this fall.
3-NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
KEY ADDITION: Antowain Smith. With Deuce McAllister sidelined with injuries off-and-on last season, the Saints needed some insurance. Enter Smith. While Smith can't be "da man" anymore....he can provide some good carries and let McAllister rest his legs.
KEY SUBTRACTION: Jerome Pathon.Not really a jarring release...but the Saints let him go to make room for Devery Henderson. This position is stacked for N'Awlins.
KEY PLAYER: Aaron Brooks.How he perfoms decides how well the Saints do. The stats have always been there...but dude turns the ball over too much. His fumbles, picks and dumb throws plague New Orleans. He is a big QB with a strong arm and quick legs that can cause havoc for defenses. He just needs to be a tad more careful with the ball.
OUTLOOK: The team has the talent to get into the playoffs. They have stars at the skill positions and have just enough defense to hold up a team. However, if the Saints aren't in the playoffs....you may see Jim Haslett get the ax. I think the team will keep doing what they've been doing. They'll play great on certain afternoons...then implode on others. That makes me think a 7 or 8 win season will occur.
4-TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
KEY ADDITION: Ike Hillard. With losing Key Johnson, KeenanMcCardell and Joe Jurevcicius recently, Hillard becomes the "veteran" of this receiving corps. He is a excellent teammate to have on a team that needs some cohesiveness. With Joey Galloway in his twilight, Hillard may see the field a lot more.
KEY SUBTRACTION: Brad Johnson.The starting QB of their Super Bowl season, Johnson was unceremoniously benched then released last season. The void he leaves means that Tampa is counting on a rebirth [Griese], a insecure QB [Simms] and a newbie [McCown]. They may miss Johnson's solid, if not creative, talent.
KEY PLAYER: Michael Clayton.For Brian Griese to be effective...he needs to link up with someone. Clayton should be that guy. He isn't a home-run guy...but he can run any route and keep the chains moving. That's really all that the Buccs need to do right now.
OUTLOOK:Still a very good defense...just not the kind that can win games alone. The offense isn't too good, at least right now. The Cadillac and Pittman should platoon carries to help ease Griese and his young receivers in. This is a transition year for Tampa...asold guys Alstott and Galloway may fade while Cadillac and Clayton become stars. This team just doesn't have the talent to match up with the rest of the division.
NFC WEST CHAMPS-ST LOUIS RAMS
KEY ADDITION: Chris Claiborne. Chris will take over the reigns of MLB and will have to lead a defense with many questions. The secondary is iffy and the d-line has some issues as well. Not to mention that line-mate Dexter Coakley is also new to the team.
KEY SUBTRACTION: Bryce Fisher. Fisher led the Rams in sacks last year, but has gone up north to the rival Seahawks via free agency. St. Louis will start Anthony Hargrove in his stead. And remember, defensive coordinator Lovie Smith is in Chicago now.
KEY PLAYER: Steven Jackson. It is his baby now. With Faulk as his backup, Jackson will get the majority of rushing attempts. However, will Mike Martz actually allow him to get into a rhythm??
OUTLOOK: I like the Rams to win this division by a hair. I think they have the best established talent, at least on offense. Bulger and his merry men [Holt, Bruce, Curtis, McDonald] are back and may actually have a running game to boot. They better score some points since the defense should allow a bunch, too. The schedule is pretty tame
KEY ADDITION: Kurt Warner. He may not be great anymore...but he will do. I was very vocal about Warner losing his starting job in New York last year and think he still has a serviceable career.
KEY SUBTRACTION: Emmitt Smith. I know he really wasn’t much anymore...but he was the face of the franchise. A class guy that really could be used in this organization. I’m sure Arizona would have liked to see him squeeze out just one more year to tutor Arrington.
KEY PLAYER: JJ Arrington. The rookie will most likely get the starting nod in the backfield...and he will get a lot of touches. Remember, Warner was successful in New York because of Tiki Barber’s play. Running the ball will be key for this potentially explosive offense to work.
OUTLOOK: Yeah, I guess I am the only guy that isn’t jumping on the Cards’ bandwagon. I do like their talentand think that this team is capable of making the playoffs, even winning their division. However, they will be relying on a rookie RB and a QB that hasn’t looked that great over the last several years. Arizona didn’t really lose anyone important from their 6-10 team last year...but remember that 2 of those losses were to the Niners and they lost 5 of their last 7 games. I think they will fall just short of the playoffs.
KEY ADDITION: Andre Dyson. With Ken Lucas leaving for Carolina....Dyson brings speed to the CB position in a division with several speedy WR. Teaming up with Trufant gives the Seahawks solid secondary play.
KEY SUBTRACTION: Koren Robinson. All the talent in the world and he gets cut. Believe me, I had him on my fantasy team last year and his drops [and suspension] cost me several weeks.
KEY PLAYER: Matt Hasselbeck. I know it is a cop-out to pick the QB...but he disappointed many last year as it looked as if he could take the team to the next level. With Shaun Alexander behind him running, Hasselbeck could end up with a solid season. If not, he could be out with Holmgren.
OUTLOOK: This could beMike Holmgren’s last stand. The talent is there to do a lot...but their heads aren’t on straight. Another dumb season and it would seem that Holmgren has lost them. With Robinson’s release and Alexander’s contract squabbles...it doesn’t seem to be getting off very well. However, with Matt Hasselbeck, Alexander and Darrell Jackson they have the beginnings of a solid offense. They could win the division if they can finish teams off.
4-SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
KEY ADDITION: Alex Smith. It is weird to see the Niners in this position, and even weirder that they don’t have that "face of the franchise". Smith takes that spot left over from Montana, Rice, Young and Owens. Honestly, the season will be gauged by how well Smith develops this season. No one expects Big Ben production....just progress. It is nice that San Fran decided to get some guys in to protect him [note the sarcasm].
KEY SUBTRACTION: Todd Peterson. For a team that needs as many points as it can get,losing your kicker is big. Both games San Francisco won last year were in overtime on FG kicked by Peterson. Their replacement, Joe Nedney, has been fighting leg injury issues the last 2 seasons.
KEY PLAYER: Kevan Barlow. Wow, did he have a bad 2004 season! Not so much his own doing [the O-line helped a lot] but the Niners at least figured they could move the ball on the ground. Getting Barlow squared away will go a lot into helping Smith develop.
OUTLOOK: This team will still suck. They did finish 2-14 last year...but both wins were in overtime over the Cardinals by the same score [31-28]. They may finish just as bad this year. The division is weak enough to warrant a couple wins....but with sub-par personnel all over the field, it will be a miracle not to see the Niners in the top 5 of the 2006 draft.