Players to Watch: NFC South
Crumpler became quarterback Michael Vick's main man in 2004, when he caught 48 balls for 774 yards and six TDs to earn his first Pro Bowl berth. The 6-foot-2, 262-pound Crumpler is an easy target for Vick, who struggles with his accuracy at times. Defenses likely will double-team Crumpler whenever possible, but he still will be the Falcons' most reliable target.
After struggling in a 3-4 system in '03, Kerney excelled when the Falcons switched back to a 4-3 last season. His 13 sacks ranked fourth in the NFL, and he's excellent at all phases of defensive-line play. Kerney is the key cog on a Falcons defensive line that is one of the five best in the NFL.
The Panthers acquired free-agent cornerback Ken Lucas during the offseason, which means Gamble will have to compete with Ricky Manning Jr. for the other starting spot. Early reports out of Charlotte indicate the job belongs to Gamble, who led the team with six interceptions as a rookie last season. With a year of NFL play under his belt, Gamble has a chance to be outstanding in '05.
Colbert played well enough in his rookie season for the Panthers to feel comfortable letting WR Muhsin Muhammad leave via free agency. The USC product had 47 receptions and five TDs, averaging 16.0 yards per catch, second-best in the NFC. Carolina QB Jake Delhomme has confidence in Colbert, and the second-year receiver should be a consistent big-play threat.
Delhomme improved statistically in '04, when he threw 29 TDs and just 15 interceptions. Entering his third season, Delhomme has a good grasp of the offense and he still has his trademark enthusiasm. He will have to make an adjustment without primary WR Muhsin Muhammad, but the return of Steve Smith, who missed all but one game last year, should make up for the loss.
Clayton had one of the best seasons for a rookie receiver in NFL history. His 1,193 receiving yards ranked 13th in the league, and he'll be able to improve on that mark if the Bucs get consistency at the quarterback spot with Brian Griese. Clayton underwent minor offseason knee surgery, but he'll be ready to go as Tampa Bay's No. 1 receiver. With his size, speed and sure hands, Clayton could earn a trip to Honolulu this season.
The Bucs gave Griese with a new five-year contract in the offseason and will give him every opportunity to lead this team back to the playoffs. After starting the 2004 season as the third-string QB, Griese flourished when he got his opportunity. He threw 20 TDs and 12 INTs, completed 69.3 percent of his passes and amassed a 97.5 passer rating. Griese, however, has shown promise in the past before falling hard under the weight of big expectations.
The veteran cornerback solidified the Saints' defense after a midseason trade from the Packers in '04. After McKenzie held out during the early part of the season, Green Bay signed the cornerback and immediately shipped him to New Orleans. In 10 games with the Saints, McKenzie had five interceptions and added a little swagger to the New Orleans D.
McAllister struggled a bit in '04, averaging a career-low 4.0 yards per carry while rushing for 1,074 yards in 14 games. But McAllister showed signs of life toward the end of last year -- he rushed for more than 100 yards against Atlanta and Carolina in the last two games of the season. The new Saints offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard promises to use McAllister heavily, and the burly RB appears to be fully recovered from a nagging ankle injury that limited him last season.
Grant teams with fellow defensive end Darren Howard to form one of the league's best pass-rushing tandems. Grant had 10.5 sacks last season and the fourth-year pro is just figuring out how good he can be. The Saints have a chance to have a ferocious pass rush this season, which leads to nothing but good things for a defense.
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