|TheInsiders.com 2004 NFL Football Preview|
|NFC EAST||NFC NORTH||NFC SOUTH||NFC WEST||AFC EAST||AFC NORTH||AFC SOUTH||AFC WEST|
|2004 CHICAGO BEARS|
Jason Klabacha, BearReport.com
Last Season's Record: 7-9 ( Third place finish in the NFC North and tied for 10th in the NFC. )
Last Play Off Appearance: 2001
Key matchup(s): The Bears start the season with three games against division opponents. The Bears host the Lions in the Sept. 12th season opener. Week 1 has become a must win because the Bears travel to Green Bay and Minnesota the following two weeks. If the Bears can't come out of a matchup with a win then they could easily start the season 0-4 because they host the Eagles in Week 4.
Star Power: Brian Urlacher, MLB, 4th year in league, ( 6-4, 258 ), Olin Kreutz, center, 7th year, ( 6-2, 292 ), Charles Tillman, cornerback, 2nd, ( 6-1, 196 )
Notable Additions: Adewale Ogunleye, DE, Miami Dolphins, ( 6-4, 260 ) John Tait, T, Kansas City Chiefs, ( 6-6, 315 ), Thomas Jones, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ( 5-10, 220 ), Tommie Harris, DT, 14th overall pick, ( 6-3, 300 )
Notable Subtractions: OLB Warrick Holdman, DE Phillip Daniels, DT Keith Traylor, QB Kordell Stewart, QB Chris Chandler,WR Dez White, WR Marty Booker, and G Chris Villarrial.
Notable Returnees: Mike Brown, S, 4th year in the league, ( 5-10, 220 ), Lance Briggs, OLB, 2nd year, ( 6-1, 238 ), Alex Brown, DE, 3rd year, ( 6-3, 262 ) Desmond Clark, TE, 6th year, ( 6-3, 254 )
Offensive Overview: The Bears ranked at the bottom of most offensive statistics a year ago. Part of that can be blamed on former offensive coordinator John Shoop. However the Bears lack of stability at quarterback is also to blame. The Bears haven't had a quarterback start all 16 games since Erik Kramer did it in 1995. Rex Grossman was named the starter from Day One Lovie Smith became the head coach. The only way he'll come off the field is if he gets hurt. Grossman has three career starts under his belt, which is the same as backup Jonathan Quinn, so the Bears offense will succeed or fail with the second-year QB. Offensive coordinator Terry Shea, the former Kansas City quarterbacks coach, brings with him the Chiefs offense. With Marty Booker in Miami because of the Adewale Ogunleye trade Grossman doesn't have a go-to receiver. However Shea believes his offense is more about spreading the ball around. Still not one wideout on the roster has ever had a 50-reception season. David Terrell, who has been a complete bust during his first three years in Chicago, will be expected to be the veteran of the group. Grossman completed 41.6 percent of his passes during the preseason, which is far below his personal goal of 60 percent. In this offense the passing game is to set up the run and if Grossman can't dramatically improve his accuracy then the best part of the Bears offense in the preseason will be negated. With Thomas Jones at tailback the running game has looked spectacular. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry in the preseason and showed the speed and cutback ability Anthony Thomas has never been able to provide. There still appears to be a role for Thomas in the offense, but it will be nothing more than a change of pace back for Jones.
Defensive Overview: The Bears unit underwent a complete in the off-season. Under former defensive coordinator Greg Blache the sack was considered an overrated statistic. Lovie Smith and his defensive coordinator Ron Rivera couldn't disagree more. The Bears asked the entire defense to drop weight in order to gain speed, which is especially important on the defensive line. The front four will be expected to supply the bulk of the pass rush and when the group wasn't performing up to standards GM Jerry Angelo went out and traded for Adewale Ogunleye, who led the AFC with 15 sacks last year. Chicago's emphasis is on creating turnovers and having speed rushers off the edge is a vital part to that idea. The hope is that the end can either strip the ball or force a quarterback to get rid of the ball quicker than he would like, thus forcing poor decisions that lead to interceptions. The Bears base defense will be a Cover 2, which is what Smith knows from his days in Tampa Bay as assistant and what he ran in St. Louis. The Rams forced an NFL-high 46 turnovers in 2003 and that's what Smith hopes to bring to Chicago. The problem with this philosophy is it's high risk, high reward. The Bears are bound to come up with more than their 20 turnovers from a year ago, but at the same time the unit is likely to give up some big plays because of their aggressive style of play.
Special Teams Overview: Heading into training camp this was the team's strongest phase of the game. However Pro Bowl Kick returner Jerry Azumah had to have surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck and will be out until at least October. He led the NFL with a 29-yard average a year ago and was arguably the Bears biggest offensive weapon. R.W. McQuarters finished among the league leaders in punt return average. He was poised for a dual role of starting corner/punt returner, but a pulled hamstring could keep him out of the season opener and beyond. The Bears will be reluctant to put McQuarters back returning punts when he returns considering their injury situation in the secondary. Paul Edinger is the most accurate placekicker in franchise history. His one downside is a lack of depth on kickoffs. Punter Brad Maynard is a solid veteran.
The Bears will show progress if.... The Chicago Bears have enough talent on defense to win games and could go 8-8 if the passing game can progress under quarterback Rex Grossman.
|2004 DETROIT LIONS|
Nate Caminata, LionsFans.com
Last Season's Record: 5-11, 4th Place NFC North
Last Playoff Appearance: 1999 (loss to Washington)
Key matchup(s): September 12th @ Chicago - FOX Sports, November 25th vs Indianapolis - CBS, December 12 @ Green Bay - FOX Sports
Star Power: Joey Harrington, QB, Third-year, Charles Rogers, WR, Second-year, Dre' Bly, CB, Sixth-year
Notable Additions: Roy Williams, WR, NFL Draft (7th Overall), Tai Streets, WR, San Francisco 49ers, Damien Woody, G, New England Patriots, Kevin Jones, RB, NFL Draft (30th Overall), Fernando Bryant, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars.
Notable Subtractions: James Stewart, RB, Still Unsigned, Barrett Green, OLB, New York Giants, Ray Brown, G, Retired, Bill Schroeder, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Offensive Overview: If you're looking to draw a smile from Lions' third-year quarterback Joey Harrington, simply mention the team's off-season acquisitions. Rookie running back Kevin Jones provides the Lions with talent in the backfield that hasn't been apparent since Barry Sanders' early retirement. Roy Williams, a seventh-overall pick, former Pro Bowler Stephen Alexander and a serviceable Tai Streets join last year's second-overall pick Charles Rogers to give Harrington plenty of offensive options. Harrington, meanwhile, has displayed flashes of brilliance in the pre-season, grasping the complex West Coast offense and taking advantage of his targets. The Lions were the only team to score on each of its opening possessions in every pre-season game. He also has protection. The Lions allowed a league-low (and best) 11 sacks last year. Free-agent acquisition Damien Woody (New England) has helped solidify the line even further. There is a youth movement in Detroit. Keyword being "youth." While the Lions’ potential is certainly vast, it also has to be realized. Detroit still hasn’t won a road game in the last 24 attempts, and they will rely heavily upon untested talent to get them over the hump. Youthful mistakes, especially on offense, can throw a game plan off-balance. The young Lions must grow up fast. Steve Mariucci’s West Coast offense was successful in San Francisco – with the proper talent. The Lions have the pieces lined up in 2004, but execution by a youthful group is necessary. Expect some fireworks, and some duds.
Defensive Overview: CB’s Dre’ Bly and Fernando Bryant can finally make fans feel secure in the secondary. Bly, a Pro Bowler, exceeded expectations last year as a shut-down cornerback. Opposing team’s threw away from Bly, focusing on the other side of the field that was manned by four different players. Bryant’s signing secures that side of the field, and will allow the team to focus on stopping the run more. A defensive line that features tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson is imposing to any offense, and the Lions have speed and talent at LB as well with second-rounder Teddy Lehman starting outside of veteran MLB Earl Holmes. Behind Bly and Bryant resides … well … not much. SS Brian Walker will miss the season after knee surgery, while the aging Brock Marion is solid but not spectacular at FS. The Lions will plug fellow veteran Bracy Walker at strong safety, handing the team one of the most youthful-challenged safety duos in the league. Injuries ravaged the LB core during training camp. The Lions lost projected starter Boss Bailey to injury. Bailey is expected to miss up to six games. His replacement, Donte’ Curry, has been a career special teams man. Holmes is serviceable in the middle and Lehman is still learning the ropes. At DE, Kalimba Edwards nor Cory Redding has stepped up to produce a strong pass rush. James Hall, on the other end, is solid, but not a playmaker. The Lions need to sign another SS, and perhaps DE if possible. The cornerback position and the middle of the defensive line must produce otherwise the unit could collapse. Lions’ defensive coordinator Dick Jauron practices a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. If things go bad, the latter of that philosophy would be unavoidable.
Special Teams Overview: Jason Hanson enters his 13th year in the league, and only seems to get better with age. He has remained one of the league’s elite kickers since 1991. If the Lions have had any position on the team in the last decade with zero concern it’s at kicker. Nick Harris is a solid punter, but nothing special. Eddie Drummond returns from an injury-consumed 2003 and will be the team’s punt and kick-return specialist. Drummond has excellent vision, speed and awareness. The coverage units on punt returns has been suspect during the pre-season, but the Lions will likely have those kinks worked out in time for September 12th.
Playoff contender? Sure, why not. The Lions have the talent to challenge the rest of the division, and nine wins is not unattainable if everything clicks. One thing is certain: The Lions will break "the streak", and grab their first road win early in 2004. Keep an eye on September 12th.
|2004 GREEN BAY PACKERS|
Todd Korth, PackerReport.com
Last Season's Record: 10-6, 1st in NFC North, fourth in NFC
Last Playoff Appearance: Jan. 11, 2004 , lost 20-17 in OT to Philadelphia Eagles
Key matchup(s): Sept. 13 at Carolina (ABC); Sept. 26 at Indianapolis (Fox); Nov. 14 vs. Minnesota (Fox); Dec. 5 at Philadelphia (Fox); Dec. 24 at Minnesota (Fox)
Star Power: Brett Favre, QB, 14th season; 6-2, 224; Ahman Green, RB, 7th season, 6-0, 218; Donald Driver, WR, sixth season, 6-0, 192; Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, DE, 5th season, 6-4, 252; Darren Sharper, S, eighth season, 6-2, 210; Nick Barnett, MLB, 2nd season, 6-2, 233.
Notable Additions: Mark Roman, S, Cincinnati, 5-11, 200; Bryan Barker, P, Washington, 6-1, 205; Ahmad Carroll, CB, 5-10, 185; first round, Arkansas; Joey Thomas, CB, 6-1, 195; third round, Montana State
Notable Subtractions: Josh Bidwell, P, Tampa Bay, UFA, Marques Anderson, S, Oakland, Antuan Edwards, S, Miami
Notable Returnees: Chad Clifton, OT, fifth season, 6-5, 330; Michael Hawthorne, CB, fifth season, 6-3, 204
Offensive Overview: The Packers return all 11 starters from an offense that ranked fourth overall in total yardage in the NFL last year (362.4 avg. per game). QB Brett Favre is coming off one of his better seasons. Favre was selected to his third straight Pro Bowl by leading the NFL in touchdown passes for a record-tying fourth time. He ranked second among NFC QBs in passer rating, despite breaking the thumb on his throwing hand midway through the season. Ahman Green also is coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he rushed for a career- and team-record 1,883 yards (5.3 avg. per carry). The Packers have turned into a run-first offense, which has taken pressure off of Favre. Green Bay still needs better production from its receiving trio of Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson and Javon Walker. Driver led Green Bay’s receivers with 52 catches. Walker led the team with nine touchdown catches and is poised to have a breakout season.
Defensive Overview: New defensive coordinator Bob Slowik has introduced a more aggressive, blitzing style of defense in training camp this season. The Packers are looking to get more big plays out of their linebackers – Nick Barnett, Na’il Diggs and Hannibal Navies – and more pressure on the quarterback. The Packers ranked 24th in the league in sacks in 2003 with 34 and must get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. DE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has had double-digit sacks the last three seasons. Without disgruntled CB Mike McKenzie on the team, Green Bay will begin the season with Michael Hawthorne as the starter at LCB, but it won’t be long before first round pick Ahmad Carroll takes over for Hawthorne. Carroll came on strong near the end of training camp as did third-round CB Joey Thomas.
Special Teams Overview: Ryan Longwell, Green Bay’s all-time leading scorer, gives the Packers stability at the kicking position. But Green Bay’s punting situation is a mess. The Packers used a third-round pick on Ohio State’s B.J. Sander, but he has struggled. Green Bay signed veteran Bryan Barker as a safety net at punter. Antonio Chatman will return punts for the second straight season, and Najeh Davenport will return kickoffs.
The Packers will finish with an 11-5 record and advance to the NFC Championship Game if their defense improves by putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
|2004 MINNESOTA VIKINGS|
Tim Yotter, VikingUpdate.com
Last Season's Record: 9-7 (4-2 in NFC North, 2nd place)
Last Playoff Appearance: 2001 NFC Championship Game
Key matchup(s): Since Las Vegas odds-makers have Philadelphia as the favorite in the NFC and Minnesota second, the two teams' NFC showdown on Monday Night Football on Sept. 20 will be a key early-season indicator of how good both teams can be. That will be a nationally televised game on ABC, and there is little doubt the talking heads will have plenty of comparisons between the Vikings' Randy Moss and the Eagles' Terrell Owens. The other key game is Nov. 14 at Green Bay. Most observers feels the NFC North will be a battle between the Vikings and Packers, and this first meeting at Lambeau Field could set the tone for the second half of the season.
Star Power: Daunte Culpepper (QB, 6-4,264, 6th year) to Randy Moss (WR, 6-4, 210, 7th year) has been the repeating theme the last few years in Minnesota, but Michael Bennett (RB, 5-9, 209, 4th year) returns to full health in 2004 after a Pro Bowl season in 2002, along with a host of very talented complementary players on offense. The Vikings also added veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield (CB, 5-9, 180, 6th year) on defense to go with a speed/youth movement on that side of the ball.
Notable Additions: Free agents Antoine Winfield (CB, 5-9, 180, 6th year, Buffalo), Marcus Robinson (WR, 6-3, 215, 8th year, Baltimore); drafted Kenechi Udeze (DE, 6-3, 281, R, USC) and Dontarrious Thomas (LB, 6-2, 241, R, Auburn) will also make an immediate impact.
Notable Subtractions: With a great salary cap position, the Vikings lost no one they wanted to keep.
Notable Returnees: Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, TE Jim Kleinsasser, DT Kevin Williams, DT Chris Hovan, S Corey Chavous.
Offensive Overview: With the NFL's No. 1 offense adding firepower and losing no one of dire consequence, the Vikings have a great opportunity to defend their offensive title from 2003. Pro Bowl players abound on this side of the ball with Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss, Michael Bennett and Matt Birk all having been to the Pro Bowl at least once in the last three years. Moss, widely considered the most feared receiver in the game, put concerns of lingering plantar fasciitis behind him during the offseason, and Culpepper continued to work on limiting his turnovers while coming off a starting gig in the Pro Bowl. Bennett returns from an injury-ravaged 2003 looking like he's in the best physical condition of his professional career. The backfield, which finished with the league's top rushing game in 2002, is also deep with Bennett, Onterrio Smith (suspended for the first four games after violating the league's substance abuse policy), Moe Williams and third-down rookie Mewelde Moore. The offensive line, long a strength of the Vikings, returns all five starters from last year. Birk is one of the best centers in the game, and the left side is loaded with under-appreciated talent in guard Chris Liwienski and tackle Bryant McKinnie. The receiver corps added exciting but oft-injured Marcus Robinson and tight end Jermaine Wiggins. In reality, this offense, if healthy, should be one of the best in the league again.
Defensive Overview: The defense has been the Achilles heel of the Vikings the last five years - or more. While the offense has been putting up huge numbers since its NFL-record scoring title in 1998, the defense has been slow to rebuild. However, this offseason it got a big shot in the arm with the signing of one of the best cornerbacks in the league, Antoine Winfield. Along with the continued improvement of cornerback Brian Williams and safeties Corey Chavous and Brian Russell, the secondary is hoping to turn from suspect to successful. The rest of the defense is quick but largely unproven. The linebacker corps lost slowing veterans Greg Biekert and Henri Crockett, going with a youth movement in second-round choices from the last two drafts, rookie Dontarrious Thomas and E.J. Henderson. They will flank strongside LB Chris Claiborne. The youth movement is also taking over up front, with rookie Kenechi Udeze expected to start at right end and second-year phenom Kevin Williams staying inside full-time this season after 10-1/2 sacks from end and tackle in 2003. Chris Hovan remains next to Williams inside, with free-agent signee Steve Martin providing rotational depth as the pure nose tackle. A combination of rookie Darrion Scott, Kenny Mixon (suspended for the first two games) and Lance Johnstone provide the rotation to Udeze on the outside. Overall, the defense is faster and young, but the experience of coordinator Ted Cottrell could turn youthful athleticism into a top-10 defense.
Special Teams Overview: The Vikings struggled with inexperience at punter and kicker last year. While they fixed the problem at punter with the signing of 39-yard old Darren Bennett from San Diego, a big question mark still remains at kicker. Aaron Elling is being given the green light in his second season, but he still needs to prove his consistency during the regular season. The return game has no electrifying players and could see a shuffling of one experiment after another throughout the season.
The Vikings will win the NFC North and be a deep playoff contender if...... the stars on offense stay relatively healthy and defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell pushes the right buttons for his young defense.