NFC focus: Impact newcomers
The Packers have admired LB Ray Thompson, 27, from afar for several years and jumped at the chance to sign him, though there's a chance his best days are behind him. Thompson is best when he chases the ball, and he'll be able to do that playing the weakside position. He won't have to take on blockers or weave through traffic. He's not going to punish opponents, but he should be able to force action to his teammates and protect the perimeter. . . .
The Rams are looking for production and leadership from MLB Chris Claiborne. Claiborne is capable in coverage, but the Rams are counting on him to be a physical, run-stuffing presence in the middle on first and second down. . . .
Giants OT Kareem McKenzie should anchor the right side better than David Diehl did last year. McKenzie and RG Chris Snee will form a wide-bodied wall for run blocking on the right side. McKenzie's presence also should free TE Jeremy Shockey to be more involved in the passing game. . . .
Falcons MLB Ed Hartwell will provide an imposing force the defense lacked inside last year. With Hartwell staring them down in the middle, opponents now will try to create lanes on the strong side, but the team has improved quickness there, too, with second-year man Demorrio Williams and free-agent pickup Ike Reese. Hartwell easily changes directions, sheds blocks quickly and hits hard. He's less effective in coverage because he sometimes overruns targets. . . .
LE Chike Okeafor could have more of an impact for the Cardinals than QB Kurt Warner. Sleek and fast, Okeafor is known for his work ethic and high energy. Left end was a problem spot for the Cardinals last year, and Okeafor should turn it into a strength. He'll help make the Cardinals' defense one of the fastest in the league. . . .
WR David Patten needs to give the Redskins the legitimate No. 2 receiving threat they have lacked. Patten (5-10, 190) lacks size but has excellent speed. If Patten plays well, he will take pressure off Santana Moss and open opportunities for TE Chris Cooley. . . .
The 49ers paid a steep price for LT Jonas Jennings to bring immediate stability to a porous line. Jennings has the potential to be a stalwart at left tackle, and the team will need him be rock solid so rookie QB Alex Smith doesn't take too many hits. There are concerns about Jennings' durability. . . .
FS Dwight Smith brings much-needed swagger to the Saints' defense. Smith is a playmaker whose aggressiveness and nose for the ball should help the unit increase its turnover total. Smith's biggest challenge might be adapting to the scheme. . . .
The Seahawks are expecting a lot from LB Jamie Sharper, who has been durable and productive in his eight-year career. Sharper is slated to replace Chad Brown on the strong side, despite starting in the middle the past three seasons with the Texans. Sharper, who has never missed a game, also needs to help replace some of the playmaking output that was lost with the departure of Anthony Simmons. . . .
The Panthers expect CB Ken Lucas to take the secondary from adequate to very good. Lucas' arrival pushes Ricky Manning into the nickel job and provides an upgrade in several areas. Lucas has good size (6-0, 205) and speed and playmaking skills. Pairing Lucas with Chris Gamble means opponents won't be able to single out a corner to pick on. Lucas also will help the run defense, a major problem last year when the undersized Manning (5-8, 185) wasn't able to shut off the corner consistently. . . .
Shawn Andrews, the Eagles' first-round pick in 2004, will start at right guard, a position he held last year until he broke his leg in the opener. With the size (6-4, 340) and strength to drive opponents back, Andrews is adept at run blocking. He also seems to have a handle on pass protection. . . .
SS Kenoy Kennedy gives the Lions an intimidating presence in the secondary. Kennedy isn't a big playmaker, but he knows how to separate a receiver from the ball and, sometimes, his senses. . . .
Bears WR Muhsin Muhammad (6-2, 217) is a big, physical player capable of making all the plays over the middle expected from a possession receiver. The bonus is that he also can make plays on the perimeter with deceptive speed and quickness. He is fearless going over the middle, showing the ability to make difficult catches while shielding off defenders. . . .
NT Jason Ferguson is the primary reason the Cowboys are leaning toward making the 3-4 their base defense. He's adept at holding the middle and allowing linebackers to flow to the ball and make plays. He doesn't get many sacks, but he's a solid pass rusher who can collapse the pocket. . . .
Anthony Becht is an excellent blocking tight end who should help the Buccaneers' backs to get to the second level. Becht doesn't have great speed, hands or route-running skills, but if rookie TE Alex Smith contributes to the passing game as expected, Becht's shortcomings won't matter much. . . .
DT Pat Williams may not produce big-time numbers, but he can help the Vikings' defense improve dramatically. Williams replaces Chris Hovan, who was unable to take advantage of the constant double-teams on DT Kevin Williams. Pat Williams is more active than Hovan and should help pull some double-teams away from Kevin Williams. That balance will allow the team to get a more consistent inside pass rush as well as better run support from linebackers
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