||06-30-2005 11:21 AM
Gil Brandt: 60 second look at the NFC
Brandt's 60-second previews: NFC
By Gil Brandt
NFL.com Senior Analyst
(June 29, 2005) -- On July 23 in Illinois, the first of 32 NFL teams will report to training camp. After a spring and early summer of passing camps, minicamps and organized team activities, the teams celebrate the official start of the 2005 season. Players and coaches will prepare for the season ahead and optimism will be reborn for every NFL fan.
So with that exciting time of year less than a month away, we've taken a very quick glance at each team to see how their offseason shaped up. Much can change between now and Kickoff Weekend in September, but here's how we're viewing the NFC teams as of now. At the end, I've made my picks for the six NFC playoff teams plus the individual passing, rushing and receiving leaders and the conference MVP.
We'll unveil 60-second previews on the AFC teams next week.
The Cowboys will be one of the oldest teams in the league this season. Larry Allen, Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn, La'Roi Glover, Keyshawn Johnson and Marco Rivera are each expected to be key contributors and all are in their 30s. But all except Glover have been in the Super Bowl at some point during their career. The team had an outstanding draft and did a great job of signing unrestricted free agents, including defensive tackle Jason Ferguson and cornerback Anthony Henry, that should help the team. Look for the Cowboys to switch from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4 and play the 3-4 formation 70 percent of the time. Keeping Glenn healthy will be a big key for this team. The Cowboys make four trips to the West Coast, while the farthest the Eagles will go west is Arizona.
New York Giants
Quarterback Eli Manning lost six of his seven starts as a rookie last season. Hopefully he can follow in the path of his brother, Peyton, who went 3-13 as a rookie with the Colts and improved to 13-3 his second year. The Giants signed two free agents that should help the offense a great deal in wide receiver Plaxico Burress and tackle Kareem McKenzie. They did not have a first-round pick in the draft because of the Manning trade from the 2004 draft, but the Giants did take cornerback Corey Webster from LSU in the second round and many people thought Webster would be a top-20 pick. If the defense improves, this team can be a lot better. Last year, the Giants were getting used to a new head coach, new offensive and defensive coordinators and a new quarterback. Now they have a year of experience together. The Giants also will travel to the West Coast four times.
One of the most often-asked questions this offseason has been whether wide receiver Terrell Owens will report and play in 2005 if he is not given the new contract he has demanded. My feeling is that he will be in camp, but if he's not there, look for Reggie Brown, a second-round pick from Georgia, to fill the position and do well. The Eagles seem to lose starters to free agency every year and this year is no exception with guard Jermane Mayberry and defensive end Derrick Burgess leaving Philadelphia. But the Eagles always seem to find a way to fill the holes. The Eagles are the only NFL team to be in the playoffs every year since 2000 and have won 59 games over that five-year span, six more wins than the next closest teams (Green Bay and New England). In 2004, the Eagles had nine Pro Bowlers, the most of any team, and all return this season. The whole organization does a great job with coaching, scouting and personnel decisions and that's why they've had so much success.
In 2004, the Redskins played great defense and didn't score a lot. The team lost two very good defensive players with the departures of cornerback Fred Smoot and linebacker Antonio Pierce. They would have liked to have kept both but couldn't due to salary-cap reasons. The Redskins also traded wide receivers with the Jets, bringing in Santana Moss for Laveranues Coles. But what it comes down to is that the team needs quarterback Patrick Ramsey to play well if they are to win more games than in '04. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams seems to do good things with smoke and mirrors.
The Bears had the worst offense in the league in 2004, scoring just 19 touchdowns. The team drafted running back Cedric Benson and wide receiver Mark Bradley with its first two picks to help the attack. The Bears also signed receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who caught 16 touchdown passes with Carolina in 2004, and re-hired Ron Turner as coordinator to revive the offense. Chicago's quarterbacks were sacked 66 times last season, which was 14 more sacks than the next highest teams. The defense has some good players and will improve on its 21st overall ranking from last year. The Bears also changed placekickers, bringing in Doug Brien.
The Lions surprised a lot of people when they drafted wide receiver Mike Williams with the 10th pick in the draft. The signing of quarterback Jeff Garcia in the offseason could be a very good move if Joey Harrington does not play better, but I think Harrington will rise to the challenge and keep the job. Second-year players Roy Williams and Kevin Jones can become big-time offensive weapons and Marcus Pollard is an upgrade at tight end, but the question is who will play right tackle. New offensive coordinator Ted Tollner, who was with the 49ers, should help the offense. Shaun Rogers and James Hall are very good defensive linemen. The Lions have a very good return man in Eddie Drummond, who had four returns for touchdowns last year before a season-ending injury.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers may be the hardest team to predict in 2005. Will they win the NFC North or will they finish third? Quarterback Brett Favre looks to be in the best shape that he's been in several years and his weight is down. Wide receiver Terrence Murphy, a second-round pick from Texas A&M, can be a draft steal. The offense ranked third overall in 2004 and should be as good in 2005, but new defensive coordinator Jim Bates has his work cut out for him. He needs the defense to produce some takeaways and improve the 25th-ranked defense. The Packers play tough out-of-division road games at Carolina, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The Vikings had the fourth-ranked offense in 2004 but the 28th-ranked defense, giving up 395 points. The defense produced only 11 interceptions last season and needs to create takeaways like it did in 2003, when it had 28 picks. The unit should be helped by the additions of cornerback Fred Smoot through free agency, linebacker Napoleon Harris by trade and defensive end Erasmus James in the draft. The Vikings lost two very good offensive players with the trade of Randy Moss to the Raiders and the season-long suspension of running back Onterrio Smith. The return of tight end Jim Kleinsasser, who missed all but one game last year, should help the running game, which was ranked fourth in 2003 but dropped to 18th last season. Steve Loney takes over as offensive coordinator and he will try very hard to bring the running game back to where it was prior to 2003, but the Vikings need center Matt Birk to be healthy. Like the Packers, the Vikings play tough out-of-division road games, traveling to Cincinnati, Atlanta, Carolina and Baltimore.
The Falcons went from having a losing record in 2003 to the conference championship game in 2004. The offensive line is very good but the passing game needs to improve. It ranked 30th in 2004 and first-round pick Roddy White, a wide receiver from Alabama-Birmingham, should help. Quarterback Michael Vick threw 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2004 and needs better passing numbers. Atlanta lost four starters (Chris Draft, Cory Hall, Ed Jasper and Matt Stewart) from last year's 14th-ranked defense. The Falcons will play four of their last six games on the road, but they play Philadelphia, Minnesota, New England, the Jets and Green Bay at home.
The key for the Panthers is keeping their players healthy; only four of 22 starters played in every game in 2004. They picked up three starters in free agency in cornerback Ken Lucas, safety Idrees Bashir and guard Mike Wahle, who joins a very good offensive line. Carolina has drafted well over the years to build the core of this team and head coach John Fox does a great job in a very quiet way. The Panthers have a chance for a fast start with a good early-season schedule, but the team needs to find a way to beat the Falcons, who they've lost to nine of the past 10 times they've squared off.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints need to win more at home, where they are 18-22 over the past five years. Mike Sheppard, who was promoted to offensive coordinator after three seasons as the team's quarterbacks coach, should help Aaron Brooks a great deal. Brooks need to improve on his 2004 numbers when his quarterback rating of 79.5 (ranked 19th in the league). With receivers Joe Horn and Donte' Stallworth and Deuce McAllister at running back, this offense can score. First-round draft pick Jammal Brown was a very good selection -- he will start at right tackle and help the offensive line. The Saints defense was ranked 32nd but the team was plus-7 in takeaways.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs scored 301 total points in 2004 and ranked 22nd in total offense, including 29th in rushing offense. First-round pick Cadillac Williams, a running back from Auburn, should change that. Quarterback Brian Griese played well when he became the starter at midseason and was signed to a new long-term contract. The defense ranked fifth overall last year and should improve with defensive tackle Anthony McFarland back after injury. Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen make a good team working together. The Buccaneers have the dreaded three road games in a row late in the season, finishing with a trip to New England on a short week to play in cold weather.
Dennis Green is entering his second year as head coach and he has been successful everywhere he has been. He has done so with several different quarterbacks, and likely will have another one this year with Kurt Warner. The team has very good wide receivers -- Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are Pro Bowl-caliber players. The offensive line is better than people think; the signing of former Steelers tackle Oliver Ross should help. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast did a good job with his unit last year and the defense should be better with rookie cornerbacks Antrel Rolle and Eric Green. This team could make the playoffs. The Cardinals will play Oct. 2 against the 49ers in Mexico City and it will count as one of their home games.
St. Louis Rams
Mike Martz is a great offensive coach, but he will face a big challenge this year with a team that is getting older. Running back Marshall Faulk and receiver Isaac Bruce, two constants in the Rams offense for years, are both 32 years of age. The defense gave up 73 more points than the offense scored in 2004 but the Rams still made the playoffs. The big question is whether the new turf being put down at the Edward Jones Dome will slow down "The Greatest Show on Turf." The special teams really need to improve if the Rams are going to return to the playoffs.
San Francisco 49ers
New head coach Mike Nolan will have a bright future in the NFL, but right now his team does not have great talent. First overall draft pick Alex Smith will be the quarterback of the future and should have a very good career, but he just turned 21 years old in May and played only two full seasons as a starter at Utah. The defense gave up 452 points last year (most in the league) and the team had a minus-19 turnover margin. Rookies David Baas (second round) and Adam Snyder (third round) should help the offensive line in the future. If rookie running back Frank Gore's knee is at full strength, he should help the offense.
The Seahawks are another team that is hard to figure out. They had the eighth-ranked offense in 2004 but were 26th on defense, giving up 373 points. The defense especially struggled down the stretch last year, giving up an average of 31.3 points in the final six regular-season games. Seattle signed three defensive free agents (defensive tackle Chartric Darby, linebacker Jamie Sharper and cornerback Kelly Herndon) that will likely be starters and should help. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck needs to have a season like he did in 2003 if the Seahawks are going to return to the playoffs. Wide receiver Darrell Jackson should have a good year.
NFC playoff teams: Arizona, Atlanta, Carolina, Dallas, Minnesota and Philadelphia
Leading passer: Daunte Culpepper, Minnesota
Leading rusher: Julius Jones, Dallas
Receptions leader: Joe Horn, New Orleans
Rookie of the Year: Cedric Benson, Chicago
NFC MVP: Culpepper