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tiggerpolice 06-16-2005 09:04 AM

Superdome home to fantasy stability?
Superdome home to fantasy stability?
Maybe this is the year the New Orleans Saints live up to their potential.
After last season's upside-down play in the NFC South, that's the only thing left that would make sense.

The Falcons won the division in 2004 despite Michael Vick rushing for as many touchdowns as the Rams' slow-footed Marc Bulger. Carolina's usually run-oriented offense developed the ninth-best passing attack, and Tampa Bay, with noted offensive coach Jon Gruden, struggled to score.

The perennially underachieving Saints again were a mystery, but they actually enter this season with the fewest questions. The Falcons, Panthers and Bucs all have significant issues to address that could greatly affect the type of impact they make.

Our ongoing offseason series examines each NFC South club heading into the 2005 season.


• What we learned in 2004: Michael Vick still is not a very good passer. His rating of 78.1 was 19th among regular quarterbacks last year. His 14 passing TDs were 24th in the league and his three rushing TDs were well below the eight he had in 2002. Even if he is not substantially better at passing this year, he could be a good value pick because popular opinion has swung so far against him, especially in fantasy circles.

• Key changes: For the third consecutive season, the Falcons used a first-round pick to acquire a wide receiver, drafting Roddy White after taking Michael Jenkins a year ago and trading for Peerless Price in 2003. White is at least as much a project as was Jenkins (seven receptions as a rookie) and does little immediately for the team's weak receiving corps. Also, kicker Todd Peterson replaces Jay Feely, whose inaccuracy at crunch time drove the Falcons nuts.

• Remaining questions: Will Price, after two disappointing seasons, or Jenkins step up to help tight end Alge Crumpler and give Vick another legitimate receiving threat? And will running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett coexist peacefully again? Dunn was the big gun last year with 1,400 total yards and nine TDs, but Duckett was no slouch with eight rushing scores.

• 2005 schedule: The Falcons open with a tough five-game stretch vs. Philadelphia, at Seattle and Buffalo and vs. Minnesota and New England. That's before closing with four of their final five games in the division, the exception being a Dec. 18 night game in Chicago that could be a cold-weather nightmare.


• What we learned in 2004: Jake Delhomme can carry a team. As the Panthers' running backs went down during a 1-7 start, Delhomme stepped up. He threw 22 TD passes vs. only five interceptions in the final 10 games last season and could post great numbers again if traditionally conservative coach John Fox keeps the offense wide-open.

• Key changes: As Delhomme's only true receiving threat, Muhsin Muhammad led the league with 1,405 receiving yards and 16 TDs. He left for Chicago as a free agent, but Steve Smith is back after breaking his ankle in Week 1. Running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster return from injuries that limited them to 83 combined carries, and the Panthers drafted Eric Shelton in the second round. Free agent tight end Freddie Jones is expected to primarily be a blocker.

• Remaining question: How will Smith, Davis and Foster bounce back from injuries? Smith was going to be the No. 1 receiver last year anyhow, and Delhomme should not suffer if Smith and improved second-year receiver Keary Colbert are the starters. Davis' knee injury and age might give Foster the first crack at starting and Shelton a real chance to contribute as a rookie.

• 2005 schedule: The Panthers are either at home or in a dome after a Week 12 game at Buffalo. A Week 16 matchup against Dallas could be troublesome if the Cowboys improved their defense as much as they think.


• What we learned in 2004: Aaron Brooks is still not a reliable starting quarterback. His 21 TD passes were his fewest since becoming the starter in 2001. And if he doesn't eliminate his mistakes and become more consistent, the Saints might look for a new quarterback.

• Key changes: The fantasy changes were minor, losing third receiver Jerome Pathon in free agency and signing running back Antowain Smith to be Deuce McAllister's primary backup. Signing free agent guard Jermane Mayberry and drafting tackle Jammal Brown in the first round could wind up being the most important changes.

• Remaining questions: Can the Saints find a solid second receiver? Joe Horn has been a No. 1 fantasy threat for five years, and Pathon's departure will open more time for youngsters Donte' Stallworth and Devery Henderson. And how will McAllister bounce back from an injury-plagued year? He is over last season's ankle injury, and if the Saints keep their promise to feature the run, he could have a huge season.

• 2005 schedule: The Saints' trip to Green Bay comes early, in Week 5, and they add three indoor road games, giving kicker John Carney 11 dome games. The only outdoor game in the final five weeks is at Tampa Bay.


• What we learned in 2004: Wide receiver Michael Clayton has a chance to be good for a long time. As a rookie, he tied for 13th in the league with 80 catches while his 1,193 receiving yards ranked 12th. He excels after the catch, and the Bucs did not try to acquire another solid starter, keeping Clayton as their primary threat.

• Key changes: Drafting Carnell Williams No. 5 overall is the biggest change. Gruden will give him a chance to be an every-down back, which would limit the roles for Michael Pittman, Mike Alstott and Charlie Garner. At least one of those latter three likely will be cut, and Williams could develop as a strong No. 2 fantasy back with a big-play flair.

• Remaining questions: What are the Bucs' quarterback plans? Has Brian Griese's career really been revitalized? And Chris Simms came up in offseason trade talks, indicating the team might be down on him. If Griese struggles and Simms gets a chance, it could stall the offense's progress while he develops.

• 2005 schedule: The Bucs' last-place finish earned them games against San Francisco and Washington, but they also have a tough stretch in Weeks 11-15 with four of five games on the road. Tampa Bay closes at home against Atlanta and New Orleans and might be a spoiler by then.

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