The War Room looks at NFC South
Somebody in Atlanta must be blowing these guys.
NFC South Dish
A quick look around the NFC South:
All the right moves
Last season the Falcons relied heavily on the tremendous athletic ability of quarterback Michael Vick to buy time and create opportunities for their incapable receiving corps. Although they advanced to the second round of the playoffs on the strength of their defense and the playmaking skills of Vick, it became evident that the Falcons had to provide more of a supporting cast for Vick in order to take the next step in 2003.
Newly acquired speedsters Peerless Price and MarTay Jenkins seem to be the right fits. Price is a legitimate No. 1 weapon, and Jenkins is a very good No. 3 who is also a terrific complement to Price and weapon for Vick, who has one of the strongest arms in the NFL. This might not be the most consistent receiving corps in the NFL, but with Vick's arm and the added speed, it should be one of the most dangerous.
The Falcons let go of tight end Reggie Kelly and will give Alge Crumpler, who is one of the more dangerous receivers at the tight end position in the NFL, more chances to stretch the field vertically down the middle. Add the receiving ability of Warrick Dunn out of the backfield to the equation, and the Falcons' offense has a chance to be one of the most explosive in the NFL.
Super Bowl hangover?
As is the case every season, the Buccaneers face the unenviable challenge of trying to repeat as Super Bowl champions. They welcome back nine of 11 starters on their record-setting defense, but they had a very lethargic offseason from a personnel standpoint.
On an offense that severely lacked speed and playmakers a season ago, the Bucs were unable to make any upgrades. Although Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell return for another season as a quality possession tandem, neither provides the deep threat. Joe Jurevicius made the occasional big play as a mismatch out of the slot position, but he is not a vertical threat, either. Jon Gruden's offense is primarily a horizontal one, but without some speed at receiver, teams can bunch up near the line and play a lot of press coverage.
With running back Michael Pittman potentially missing all of the 2003 season because of domestic disturbance charges, former Arizona Cardinal Thomas Jones could be asked to fill in at tailback. The former first-round pick has been a huge disappointment through his first three seasons, and he will have limited time to learn Gruden's complex offense.
At 32, tight end Ken Dilger is slowing with age, and his backup, Ricky Dudley, is unreliable at best.
The rest of the NFL is gunning to knock the Bucs off their throne, and while we think they are a veteran team that will come on strong in the second half, it would not surprise us in the least if they stumbled out of the gates in '03.
Management did a great job improving this team through free agency and the draft, focusing their efforts on improving a weak offense. All said and done, there were eight new additions on this side of the ball and as many as five of those players could become starters in 2003. Jake Delhomme will be the Panthers' long-term answer at quarterback, but may not see time until incumbent starter Rodney Peete relinquishes the role.
The Panthers will adopt a new ball-control offense centered on running back Stephen Davis and his power running style. Guard Doug Brzezinski will help to solidify a young offensive line that will slowly break in rookies Jordan Gross and Bruce Nelson.
The Panthers' front office did a fantastic job of scouting the draft and of not overpaying for any of their veteran additions.
With their defense finishing as the second-best overall unit in '02, the Panthers look poised to make some big strides this season. However, unfortunately for Carolina fans, the improvement may not show up as much as they would like in the win/loss column, as Delhomme needs time to learn the system and develop into a quality, consistent starter, and the same is true for youngsters Gross and Nelson. The loss of wide receiver Kevin Dyson will also hurt, as the Panthers will miss his potential speed. A year from now, however, if the inexperienced players grow up and the team can add one legitimate speedster at receiver, the Panthers have a chance to be one of the most talented teams in the NFL.
The Big Easy needs to toughen up
The Saints finished one game out of the playoffs a year ago and have been so close to resembling a good football team for so long that frustration is settling in down in New Orleans. There are a couple of glaring problems that we see with the Saints in 2003.
First is the fact that they have more underachievers on their defense than any other team in the NFL. Defensive tackles Chase Martin and Grady Jackson, middle linebacker Darrin Smith and safety Jay Bellamy have all been huge disappointments. Unless most or all of these players find a way to contribute more this season, the Saints' defense will remain a weakness, despite the additions of safety Tebucky Jones and rookie defensive tackle Jonathan Sullivan. In addition, the linebackers are unproven with Orlando Ruff and Sedrick Hodge as starters, being backed up by second-year pro James Allen and rookie Cie Grant.
The secondary also remains a question mark. Cornerback Ashley Ambrose will be 33, cornerback Dale Carter will be 34, and safety Jay Bellamy will be 31 during the season. Jones was a solid upgrade at free safety, but Mel Mitchell is an unproven second-year pro at strong safety in place of the slowing and inconsistent Bellamy.
Second, quarterback Aaron Brooks' shoulder has to be a huge concern. Brooks has yet to throw at full speed following shoulder surgery, and if his shoulder is not 100 percent for the entire season, which there is a good chance it won't be, the Saints have no chance of challenging the Buccaneers and Falcons in the NFC South after replacing Delhomme (Panthers) with Todd Bouman. With Brooks healthy, the defense is the key. Without him, the season is lost.
Sophomore breakouts: These five guys had tremendous sophomore campaigns. They are set to enter their third year with heightened expectations and greater responsibility.
Michael Vick (QB ATL): Vick rushed for 777 yards last season and threw for nearly 3,000. He also accounted for 24 touchdowns as he led the Falcons into the second round of the NFC playoffs.
Duece McAllister (RB NO): In his first full year after the departure of Ricky Williams, McAllister ran for over 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns. He added 47 receptions out of the backfield and became the complete back the Saints have desperately wanted.
Kris Jenkins (DT CAR): Jenkins can overwhelm interior linemen with his push on the pass rush. He had seven sacks in 2002 en route to his first Pro Bowl.
Steve Smith (RS CAR): Smith became a triple threat as a receiver, punt returner and kickoff returner in '02. He caught 54 passes for a team high 872 yards and returned two kicks for scores.
Kenyatta Walker (OT TB): Walker showed great improvement towards the end of last season. He anchored the right side of a Bucs' O-line that allowed only one sack throughout the postseason.
The War Room, a team of football scouts headed by Gary Horton, analyzes NFL and college players, coaches and teams exclusively for Sporting News.
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