The Redskins have done little to solve their problems on offense and lost quality defensive players in free agency in linebacker Antonio Pierce and cornerback Fred Smoot.
Patrick Ramsey made significant strides during the second half of the 2004 season and is entrenched as the starting quarterback for head coach Joe Gibbs, but Washington's unimaginative and predictable offense may have taken a step back at wide receiver with the Laveranues Coles-for-Santana Moss trade.
The Redskins' defense was surprisingly solid despite a perceived lack of overall talent. With the lack of a true pass rusher and injuries to linebacker LaVar Arrington and Michael Barrow, Washington thrived under the tutelage of assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. The Redskins boasted the third-rated defense in the league thanks to the solid play of Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot in the defensive backfield, a tough run defense and the superior play of Pierce.
Presently, the Redskins do not appear to have the makings of a comparable defense. With the departure of Pierce to the Giants, Washington is susceptible at middle linebacker. The loss of the reliable Smoot to Minnesota also left a void in the secondary, which was the team's strength. Now, the defensive backfield could be the Redskins' weakness.
Week 2 vs. Detroit
The Lions could be the NFC North's surprise team. Showing gradual improvement under head coach Steve Mariucci, the Lions appear poised to compete for the playoffs as a wild card.
Hard-hitting safety Kenoy Kennedy has been added to an improving Detroit defense. Offensively, the Lions upgraded the interior of the line by signing guard Rick DeMulling from Indianapolis and they added a quality quarterback in Jeff Garcia to compete with Joey Harrington. Garcia could end up as the starter due to his knowledge of the West Coast offense and his experience playing for Mariucci in San Francisco.
With a determined outlook of the future, the Lions have built a solid foundation and don't have the numerous roster issues that have plagued the team in the past. While questions remain regarding depth at wide receiver and offensive right tackle, the Lions, with the 10th selection in the draft, should have the opportunity to select a player who will be of immediate help at either position.
Week 3 vs. Cincinnati
For the 2004 Bengals, an improved defense was the issue, with a solid look towards the future in the Queen City. While improved overall, the Bengals were far from a consistent defensive presence. Chuck Bresnahan has been named the new defensive coordinator, along with Marvin Lewis like a defense which is fundamentally sound, fast, and players that don't make game-changing mistakes.
With the Bengals now sporting a dynamic presence at quarterback, a talented running back, a pair of high-quality receivers, a tough veteran offensive line, and a young improving defense, these Bengals have turned the corner.
The Bengals retained wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had a breakout season in 2004. Teaming with Chad Johnson, Houshmandzadeh provides young quarterback Carson Palmer a significant weapon in the passing game, which should only improve as the Cincinnati offense gains experience together.
Palmer returns after missing the team's final three games of the 2004 season due to a strained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Healthy, Palmer has been medically cleared to fully participate in the team's off-season conditioning program that begins in early April.
Re-signing running back Rudi Johnson was a critical transaction for a Cincinnati team without depth at the running back position. Johnson has proven to be a tough, durable runner who provides a balance to a Cincinnati offense that can be very explosive in the passing game.
Week 4 Bye
Week 5 at Cleveland
This has been an off-season of change for the Browns, and the pace shows little sign of slowing.
General Manager Phil Savage and Head Coach Romeo Crennel are quickly rebuilding the Browns in a new image, seemingly based on the New England Patriots success using smart, versatile, team-oriented players. The new brain trust faces a tremendous challenge adapting the team to Crennel's preferred 3-4 defensive scheme and in rebuilding a squad handicapped by poor draft selections, lackluster morale, and inattention to the offensive line.
The Browns still have substantial work to do preparing for the 2005 season. The team's defensive front seven are likely to be changed further, as the Browns continue to chase free agent linemen and linebackers who better fit Crennel's scheme. Depth on the offensive line remains a concern, as does the need to define the future at quarterback.
Week 6 vs. Minnesota
The Vikings, who have been on the verge of dethroning the Packers the past two seasons only to succumb to late-season collapses, should be the early-season favorite to win the division after making moves to improve their problematic defense this off-season.
The free-agent signings of cornerback Fred Smoot and defensive tackle Pat Williams and the trades for linebackers Napoleon Harris and Sam Cowart dramatically changed the complexion of Minnesota's defense. Despite the trade of Randy Moss to Oakland, the Vikings should also remain a very compelling offensive team.
Free-agent wide receiver Travis Taylor was added to provide depth, and one of the draft's top receivers (Braylon Edwards or Mike Williams) could be selected with the seventh overall pick. With a healthy Michael Bennett running the ball and quarterback Daunte Culpepper leading the way, the Vikings – barring another meltdown – should live up to their high expectations.
Week 7 vs. Baltimore
Going back to the season (2000) when they won the Super Bowl, the Ravens were a defensive-oriented team. The theory of head coach Brian Billick being an offensive guru may be somewhat overstated when examining the final product on the field in Baltimore, but the Ravens have been proactive this off-season in filling one of their most critical needs.
The addition of wide receiver Derrick Mason should make an immediate impact on the Baltimore offense, which is now under the tutelage of former Arizona and New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel. An offensive make-over, long overdue in Baltimore is underway. Jim Fassel replaces Matt Cavanaugh as the offensive coordinator and Rick Neuheisel has been named the new quarterbacks coach to take quarterback Kyle Boller's game to the next level.
Still an immediate concern in Baltimore is the state of the offensive line. The Ravens are expected to become a more balanced team in the 2005 season, but to accomplish this there is an immediate need of quality and depth along the offensive line to protect Boller, as the Ravens are expected to throw the ball more often.
Week 8 at Detroit
Week 9 at New Orleans
The times may be changing for the Saints. Always competitive under head coach Jim Haslett, the Saints were one victory shy of making the playoffs last season, but a greater focus is being put on Haslett and his staff to improve the NFL's worst defense.
While stopping the run has been an ongoing issue for the Saints, their pass defense and linebacking corps failed miserably in 2004. A spirited offense kept New Orleans in games, but its defense too often appeared a step slow and ultimately proved to be the team's demise.
While acquiring talent through free agency has been rather slow, two signings should improve the Saints' porous defense. Dwight Smith fills a critical void at safety, and the signing of linebacker Levar Fisher shouldn't be discounted.
Offensively, the Saints remain a potentially explosive unit led by quarterback Aaron Brooks and running back Deuce McAllister. The offense is being counted on to carry the team, but if the organization can improve the defense, New Orleans could be capable of becoming a playoff contender.
Week 10 vs. San Francisco
The 49ers are in the early stages of a rebuilding project. New head coach Mike Nolan plans on changing the defense to a 3-4, but doesn't have the personnel to run it properly.
The defense's best player is coming off an Achilles injury that kept him out for the bulk of the 2004 campaign. While Julian Peterson will return this year, the question of how effective he can be remains in doubt.
San Francisco is thin in the secondary. The 49ers expect CB Mike Rumph, who missed most of last season with a broken forearm, to return at full strength. They can't be too sure of CB Ahmed Plummer, who missed 10 games with a bulging disc in his neck.
The draft will provide the offense with a quarterback in either Aaron Rodgers or Alex Smith. Either could start early with Tim Rattay currently the signal caller for the 49ers, but the team considered trading for a veteran during the off-season.
Halfback Kevan Barlow was a disappointment last season, and it remains to be seen how he reacts to a new coaching staff.
The prize acquisition was tackle Jonas Jennings, who signed a seven-year $36 million deal. He will provide protection for the backside of another multi-million dollar investment.
Receiver Cedrick Wilson bolted as a restricted free agent and signed with Pittsburgh. The remaining wideouts are not big-play threats. Their roster is filled with mediocre NFL receivers, and they need to find somebody who can consistently get open and make plays down the field.
San Francisco won just two games last year and will struggle to improve from that output because a combination of youth and lack of talent.
Week 11 vs. Carolina
Despite finishing strong last season, the Panthers have been busy revamping questionable areas on their roster. Since the offensive line and defensive backfield did not play as well as they did during the Super Bowl season of 2003, the Panthers have been proactive this off-season.
Carolina has worked diligently to improve its defense with the free-agent signing of cornerback Ken Lucas from Seattle. With the signing of guard Mike Wahle from Green Bay, the Panthers added a very good and versatile lineman to the stable. While depth concerns remain along the offensive line, the Panthers can be expected to add a veteran prior to training camp, as well as addressing their O-line needs in the draft.
The immediate focus in Carolina will be to add a potentially explosive playmaker type to the offense. In not paying wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad a $10 million bonus early in the off-season and releasing the veteran, the Panthers have a rather large void to fill on offense. With the 14th selection in the draft, the Panthers have been rumored to be interested in choosing Troy Williamson or Michael Clayton to add an explosive wide receiver to the passing game.
If Carolina can go through the 2005 season without being decimated by injury again, it could rise to the top of the NFC South and become a legitimate playoff contender.
Week 12 at Tampa Bay
The Buccaneers haven't been a playoff team since winning the Super Bowl during head coach Jon Gruden's first season. Hurt by salary-cap restraints, questionable personnel moves and a lack of focus, the Buccaneers have wallowed along in mediocrity.
A once stout Tampa Bay defense lost its intimidating style and precision play. Offensively, the Buccaneers were inconsistent due to a questionable running game and the ongoing saga of finding a starting quarterback.
But there appears to be a positive outlook for the Buccaneers in 2005. Gruden named veteran Brian Griese the starting quarterback and the Bucs could use the fifth overall selection in the draft on a running back to solidify the ground game. Though Tampa Bay has solid starters in place at many positions on the offensive side of the ball, depth is a concern.
Behind Michael Clayton and oft-injured Joey Galloway, there is little experience at wide receiver. Also, the depth behind the starting offensive linemen is alarming. Due to salary-cap limitations, the Buccaneers were unable to secure any true impact signings, although they were able to sign tight end Anthony Becht from the Jets and defensive tackle Chris Hovan from the Vikings.
Unless the Buccaneers can hit the bonanza on draft day, success in 2005 could rest on good luck and another coaching gem by Gruden. Still, even that may not be enough for a playoff spot.
Week 13 vs. Green Bay
In Green Bay, as the offense goes, so go the Packers. A lack of starting quality players in the defensive backfield and questionable depth could be the undoing of the defending division champs, though.
Quarterback Brett Favre will return for a 15th season to lead an offense that was consistent in 2004, but he will be without the ever reliable guard tandem of Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle. Their departures place an increased amount of pressure on Favre.
The reigns of the defense were handed over to former Dolphins defensive coordinator Jim Bates. With the Packers coming off another season in which the defense played poorly, Bates will have the inevitable task of putting together a unit that's lacking quality and depth at most positions. Bates has toyed with the notion of moving Nick Barnett to weak-side linebacker and Na'il Diggs to strong-side linebacker to maximize their athletic ability in what is being deemed an aggressive, quick-reacting defense.
While the Packers will not pass on the best player available in the draft's first round, they may slightly alter their strategy if a need player/position remains on the board without a significant drop in talent. With three selections among the first 58 picks, Green Bay should improve its roster. But if the Packers fail to do so, they could be looking up at the rest of the division – a sight they haven't experienced in a long time.
Week 14 vs. Atlanta
The Falcons were the latest team in the NFC South to become division champion. In a rather surprising first season under head coach Jim Mora, the Falcons tore through the division and became a rough-and-tough team.
Sporting a tremendous rushing attack, the Falcons placed an importance on improving their passing game. Quarterback Michael Vick struggled at times last season with the West Coast offense due to his impatience in the pocket, and if Atlanta expects to repeat as division champs, Vick must become a well-rounded and increasingly consistent player.
The Atlanta passing game was the one weakness in what was a surprisingly powerful offense that featured the running abilities of Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett, and Vick. In the draft, the Falcons could add depth to the receiver corps.
Defensively, the Falcons have lost many players from last year's improved defense. Starting outside linebacker Matt Stewart, Chris Draft, Ed Jasper, Travis Hall and Cory Hall all have departed, and the team signed linebackers Ed Hartwell and Ike Reese as well as safeties Rich Coady and Ronnie Heard. Depth at defensive line and linebacker could be concerns.
The Falcons remain the team to beat in the NFC South, but the gap between Atlanta and the remainder of the division is not nearly as great as the 2004 records may indicate.
Week 15 at Pittsburgh
Protecting the quarterback wasn't an issue for the Steelers during the 2004 season, but there could be some problems for a Pittsburgh team which had the same offensive linemen start every game last season. 2004 starters, Oliver Ross (Cardinals) and Keydrick Vincent (Ravens) have departed in free agency. A lack of experience and depth leaves the Steelers very vulnerable on the right-side of the offensive line.
With Simmons expected back at full strength for the 2005 season, the Steelers will lineup 4/5 of their projected 2004 starting offensive line, with Simmons being thought of as an improvement at the right guard position Vincent vacates (Marvel Smith, Alan Fanaca, and Jeff Hartings return), with Max Starks expected to get a look in replacing Ross.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have a season under his belt, but the team will have to deal with the loss of starting wide receiver Plaxico Burress (Giants), the loss of Burress could have a rippling affect on the Steelers of 2005. Burress was a legitimate deep threat for the Steelers and his departure leaves a void for the Steelers to address. Hines Ward is a nearly perfect possession receiver, but lacks the speed and quickness to be a deep threat. Antwaan Randall El is a quick receiver, Lee Mays is a shifty-type receiver, with free agent acquisition Cedrick Wilson (49ers) being the teams most viable option in the vertical game.
Defensively, the Steelers regained the physical, consistent pressure defense of days gone by. Pittsburgh will welcome back from injury 2003 All-Pro defensive tackle Casey Hampton and his ability to take up space and blockers at the point of attack along the interior defensive line.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will have an outstanding corps of linebackers to work with again in the 2005 season. Kendrell Bell (Chiefs) departs, but he missed most of the 2004 season, with his replacement Larry Foote having a solid season. Starters Clark Haggins, Joey Porter, and James Farrior are the horses of this very solid Pittsburgh defense and there is no reason to believe they will slip in 2005.
Week 16 at Green Bay
Week 17 at Minnesota