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saintswhodi 05-31-2005 04:00 PM

NFC South division preview by John Clayton

Foes aiming to slow down FalconsBy John Clayton

To make a playoff run in the NFC South, defenses better be able to stop the run. This division faces some of the most difficult running schemes in the NFL. In Atlanta, it's the one-two punch of Michael Vick's elusive running style along with a second season of Alex Gibbs' system of blocking. The Falcons led the NFL in rushing yards last year. The Carolina Panthers pound the ball as a habit. Last year, they only averaged 26 rushes a game, but coach John Fox loves it when they can get 30-40 rushing attempts a game. The Saints have a healthy Deuce McAllister and have plans to run him more this year. The Bucs just drafted Cadillac Williams and Jon Gruden once had the league's best running team when he featured it in Oakland.

The Falcons were the best run-stopping team in the division last season and finished eighth overall in the NFL. Being the best running team and also being the best run-stopping team enabled the Falcons to win the NFC South, a very interesting division in that each team seems to have an edge on the other. The Panthers, despite a talented defense, don't matchup well against the Falcons. The Falcons usually have trouble with the Saints. The Saints usually have an edge on the Bucs.

Edgerton Hartwell
Atlanta Falcons

Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
97 58 39 1 0 0

• Atlanta Falcons
Best move: The signing of middle linebacker Edgerton Hartwell should add more attitude to an already good defense. With Hartwell in the middle and Keith Brooking on the outside, the Falcons have two exceptional play-makers at linebacker. There were a lot of questions about whether the Falcons would have the cap room to make a big move in the offseason. Getting the $134 million contract extension for quarterback Michael Vick left limited room to squeeze in a big contract. Hartwell comes from the Ravens' defense with an attitude. He defies opponents to run on him. In Baltimore, his voice was muted to a degree by Ray Lewis, the game's best middle linebacker. Now, Hartwell will have his own voice on a new team and he comes to a defense that was already ranked No. 8 in the league against the run. It's not out of the question for Hartwell to put up Pro Bowl numbers in the middle. Brooking is already a lock to do that on the outside.

Biggest surprise: Now that the Falcons used a first-round pick on Roddy White, it will be interesting to see how they use their wide receivers. Michael Jenkins is a former first-round pick last year and is expected to get more playing time. Peerless Price is a $5 million-a-year commodity that hasn't lived up to expectations. Dez White and Brian Finneran are good role players. Vick isn't starving for wide receiver options, but the surprise is going to be how these receivers will be used. Vick seems to be in a zone with tight end Alge Crumpler, who led the team with 48 catches. But Vick only completed 45 passes to Price, 30 to White, 23 to Finneran and seven to Jenkins last season. Vick needs to expand his passing options by getting the ball to the outside receivers. But if Roddy White and Jenkins become more involved, what happens to Price, Dez White and Finneran? It wasn't a surprise the Falcons drafted a receiver in the first round, but everyone wants to see how the offensive coaches use him.

Bottom line: Jim Mora established a winning presence along the sideline in his first season as Falcons head coach. He's aggressive in his approach, and the Falcons responded by playing hard for him. The Falcons clearly have one of the game's most exciting offensive players in Vick. Single-handedly, he has taken the Falcons into the playoffs and has been good enough to get them to the first round and beyond on each trip. Still, this is a division in which it is hard to repeat as champion, and the competition within the division only got better this offseason. The Falcons have to maintain their edge on the Panthers. They have to keep Vick healthy. They also have to make sure Chad Lavalais can take over for Ellis Johnson at defensive tackle or they might have to rush second-round choice Jonathan Babineaux into the starting lineup. Overall, the Falcons are the team to beat in the NFC South.

• Carolina Panthers
Best move: Spending $37 million over six years for cornerback Ken Lucas may sound like a costly investment, but that move enabled the Panthers to complete a two-year upgrade of their secondary. Remember Ricky Manning Jr., who excelled down the stretch in Carolina's Super Bowl run? He is now the No. 3 cornerback behind Lucas and Chris Gamble, who adjusted to the NFL faster than expected as a rookie starter. Lucas comes from Seattle following his best pro season. He intercepted six passes and finally gained enough confidence to play at a Pro Bowl level. Everyone knows how talented the Panthers' defensive line is. The front four is considered the best in the NFL. Matching better coverage in the secondary along with the pressure up front from Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Julius Peppers, it will be hard for teams to beat the Panthers through the air.

Biggest surprise: No one knows for sure how the Panthers will use former Packers guard Mike Wahle. They signed him for his versatility, but the surprise seems to be that they will use him at guard. Paying $5.4 million a year for a guard is a lot of money. For now, the plan seems to be putting Travelle Wharton at left tackle and moving Jordan Gross from left tackle to right tackle. Last year's training camp retirement of right tackle Adam Meadows created a problem along the offensive line that never got better. The Panthers needed to make a bold move to get an additional lineman and Wahle was their man. He has the ability to play left or right tackle. If Wharton does well at left tackle, the Panthers will be solid up front. Gross could be a Pro Bowler at right tackle. Because the Panthers are a running team, they should improve running to the right.

Bottom line: The Panthers fought through injuries last year and won six of their last eight games to finish at 7-9. The key to the season will be how good they are in the backfield. DeShaun Foster and Stephen Davis are coming off bad injuries. Even now, the Panthers aren't certain what they have in Davis, which is why they drafted Eric Shelton in the second round. The Panthers win when they are successful running the ball. Nick Goings' hot finish allowed the Panthers to win down the stretch. The biggest hole right now is at wide receiver after Muhsin Muhammad signed with the Chicago Bears. Keary Colbert caught 47 passes and averaged 16 yards a catch and earned a chance to get a starting job. But the Panthers still need an insurance policy and continue to search for a veteran wide receiver. Of course, the Panthers can get by without that receiver as long as their running game clicks.

Keep a close watch on the development of second-year WR Michael Jenkins. The Falcons are focused on improving their passing game, and could very well make Jenkins a more important part of their offense in 2005. With the return of Steve Smith and questions about the running game, it's easy for some experts to forget about another evolving offensive weapon in Carolina. WR Keary Colbert, also in his second year, could continue to improve in 2005, and he should be a very good value choice in the later rounds of your draft. New Saints offensive coordinator Mike Shepperd has introduced a more user-friendly playbook which could improve the offensive performance of Aaron Brooks. The often overrated QB has hurt fantasy players with his inconsistency in the past. Tampa Bay WR Joey Galloway scored in four of his final five games last season. When he is healthy and available, Galloway works well with veteran QB Brian Griese, who can hit him in perfect stride when Galloway gets behind DBs downfield.
– Scott Engel, associate editor of Fantasy Games

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• New Orleans Saints
Best move: Days before the draft, the Saints dreamed of drafting Thomas Davis of Georgia and turning him into a play-making linebacker. However, the Saints changed their minds and made the right move in trading up to draft Jammal Brown, the franchise's best right tackle since Kyle Turley. The Saints were getting older on the offensive line. Left tackle Wayne Gandy is 34 and guard Kendyl Jacox turns 30 in June. The Saints opted not to re-sign 30-year-old right tackle Victor Riley. They signed former Eagle Jermane Mayberry and could have played him at right tackle even though he's more valuable at guard. Brown should complete one of the division's best offensive lines if he can take over as a starter from Week 1. LeCharles Bentley is establishing himself as one of the NFC's best centers. Brown and Mayberry form a nice team on the right side of the line to knock down defenders and free up room for Deuce McAllister. Coach Jim Haslett wants to emphasize more running this season, and among the best ways to return McAllister back to Pro Bowl level is by loading up with talent along the line. With Brown, Mayberry, Gandy and Bentley, the Saints have three former first-round picks and a second-rounder in the starting lineup.

Biggest surprise: The Saints seem to be willing to outspend others to find the best safeties. A couple years ago, they paid top dollar for Tebucky Jones after acquiring him from a trade with the Patriots. After a year or so, they questioned his instincts and released him this offseason. Without hesitation, the Saints paid $3.5 million a year for former Bucs safety Dwight Smith weeks after giving safety Jay Bellamy a contract extension. And if that wasn't enough, they drafted Josh Bullocks in the second round. Most teams go on the cheap at that position. Not the Saints. Smith should improve the Saints' coverage skills from the safety position. Strong safety is an important position in this division because defenses have to keep eight players near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Mel Mitchell is also back after fighting off injuries. At least the Saints' last line of defense is a talented, well-paid group.

Bottom line: For years, the Saints have been perhaps the NFC South's most talented team, but they can't seem to get over that rut of finishing 8-8. To make matters worst, the Saints finished worst on defense, well below their talent level. Haslett feels as though there are a lot of good things going for the team this offseason. Aaron Brooks has shown more positive leadership this offseason. Brooks has always had the talent but seems to have lacked the leadership skills to get the Saints back to the playoffs. Haslett hired Willy Robinson from the 49ers to add fresh ideas and work with defensive coordinator Rick Venturi. McAllister has looked good this offseason. Wide receiver Joe Horn is excited after finally receiving the big contract extension he's been seeking for years. The Saints expect big things from cornerback Mike McKenzie, who came to the team following a trade with the Packers last season. The Saints need a big season on the field. Their season ticket base has dropped to 26,000 and local politicians are worried Tom Benson could take the team to Los Angeles. Haslett needs a big season to bring back the fans.

• Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Best move: Bucs coach Jon Gruden fell in love with halfback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams after working with him at the Senior Bowl. And face it, the Bucs needed a play-making halfback to improve. Even though Michael Pittman is a decent pass-catcher out of the backfield and does a decent job on the ground, it's not as though Pittman can string weeks of 100-yard rushing games. He rushed for 926 yards last year, but the Bucs finished 29th in the league on the ground. Getting Williams allows the Bucs to have better balance. Plus, they are becoming more talented on offense. Wide receiver Michael Clayton is coming off a big rookie campaign, catching 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. Williams has the potential to provide the offense with 1,200-1,400 rushing yards. He's powerful and elusive. In this division, the Bucs were conceding too much by not having a big-time runner. Gruden's schemes are good enough to manufacture a decent running offense. Now, with Williams, the Bucs have a top running back to compete against Deuce McAllister, Warrick Dunn and the hoard of Panther running backs.

Biggest surprise: Gruden and the Bucs fell into the pattern of relying on aging veterans to fill holes on the roster, so it was surprising they didn't do much in free agency to help their offensive line. They thought signing veteran tackles Todd Steussie and Derrick Deese in 2004 would solve their problems on the fringes of their offensive line, but that didn't work as expected. This year, the Bucs stuck with youth, drafting tackle Chris Colmer in the third round and guard Dan Buenning in the fourth round. While both may be penciled in for 2006 or later, the Bucs still have a line that's in transition. It's not out of the question for the Bucs to release Steussie to free up cap room. Kenyatta Walker hasn't lived up to first-round billing and could be gone. Brian Griese isn't a mobile quarterback; he needs solid blocking to be effective. Until the Bucs get to the regular season, they won't know if they have enough on the offensive line to get them back to the playoffs.

Bottom line: Gruden found out last year it's hard to turn around a roster that aged. The front office has pointed to disappointing drafts prior to his arrival on why the team has fallen from the Super Bowl to a five-win team in a relatively short amount of time. The nine first- and second-round choices currently on the roster are the lowest in the division. Drafting 11 players was a start on getting the roster younger. The offense is building around Clayton and Williams and should improve. Now the defense is showing some age. Gruden hasn't lost his touch as a head coach. He's one of the brightest in the game, but the Bucs probably have more holes than any team in the division. They worry about the offensive line. They are thin after their starters at cornerback. An injury or two along the defensive line or at linebacker could leave the team thin for quality replacements. No one likes to use the word "rebuilding," but the Bucs are clearly a team in transition, hoping that the past two drafts have improved their fortunes.

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