|TheInsiders.com 2004 NFL Football Preview|
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|2004 ATLANTA FALCONS|
Doug Farrar, FalconsInsider.Com
Last Season's Record: 5-11 overall, 2-4 in the NFC South, Last place in the NFC South.
Last Play Off Appearance: January 11, 2003 - a 20-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Playoffs.
Key matchup(s): October 3 - at Carolina, November 14 - Tampa Bay, November 28 - New Orleans, December 5 - at Tampa Bay, December 18 - Carolina, December 26 - at New Orleans.
Star Power: Michael Vick (QB, 4th year, 6'1", 215 lbs.), Warrick Dunn (RB, 8th year, 5'9", 180 lbs.), T.J. Duckett (RB, 3rd year, 6'1", 254 lbs.), Peerless Price (WR, 6th year, 5'11", 190 lbs), Alge Crumpler (TE, 4th year, 6'2", 262 lbs.)
Notable Additions: Ty Detmer (QB, 9th year, 6'1", 189 lbs.), Aaron Beasley (CB, 9th year, 6'1", 205 lbs.), Rod Coleman (DT, 6th year, 6'2", 285 lbs.), Jason Webster (CB, 5th year, 5'10", 187 lbs.), Dez White (5th year, 6'1", 215 lbs.).
Notable Subtractions: Ray Buchanan (CB, 12th year, 5'9", 185 pounds - Raiders), Juran Bolden (CB, 8th year 6'2", 207 lbs. - Jaguars),
Notable Returnees: Brian Finneran (WR, 6th year, 6'5", 210 lbs.), Todd Weiner (T, 7th year, 6'4", 297 lbs.), Keith Brooking (LB, 7th year, 6'2", 245 lbs.),
Offensive Overview: No doubt that Michael Vick's injury sideswiped the Falcons in 2003…but even if he stays healthy in 2004, there's a fairly major mountain for him to climb. Mora and new offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp limited Vick to only 27 reps behind center in the team's preseason, including a disastrous finale against the Redskins in which Vick went 0 for 3 with an INT and a fumble. Vick will have to learn the West Coast Offense, an extremely complex timing-based system which requires a total team concept and is generally thought to take more than a season for the most savvy quarterback to master. To expect Vick to jump into this offense, no matter how incredible his talents, may be dangerous. The quarterback who has served the Falcons best in the preseason has been third-round pick Matt Schaub. Displaying incredible poise and accuracy for a rookie in his first few games, Schaub completed 54 passes in only 86 attempts for an NFL-high 655 yards, 6 TDs and 2 INTs. Mora and Knapp have may some interesting choices to make as Vick learns a system Schaub seems more primed for in the short-term. The Falcons also acquired veteran Ty Detmer to help Vick acclimate. At RB, the Falcons have no such conundrum - the only question Is how to maximize the talents of Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. Dunn is the savvy veteran who can also be productive as a receiver, which will be crucial to the new offense. Duckett is "Mr. Inside" for the Falcons. It will be his task to work on blitz pickup and catching the ball. WR Peerless Price, the Falcons' key free agent acquisition in 2003, had a disappointing season but looks to rebound as the team's deep threat. Price will need opposing defenses to focus on Michael Jenkins and Brian Finneran, as there are questions about his ability to be the #1 receiver without another threat to take away double teams. Jenkins, the team's second-round choice, has impressed through the preseason, and Finneran is more of an interior possession receiver. Finneran could have a big year, as the WCO likes the tough guy who can grab the short pass and move the chains. Dez White, picked up from Chicago, may start or share time with Finneran. Alge Crumpler is a high-quality TE. Perhaps the most important move the Falcons made this season was hiring offensive line guru Alex Gibbs. Gibbs, who made his name training quick, undersized lines to protect mobile QBs in Denver, will try to perform magic on an Atlanta line that features no real standouts. However, there are some quality players that Gibbs can put in the system. Todd Weiner will protect the left-handed Vick's blind side at RT and will be joined by LT Kevin Shaffer, LG Michael Moore, RG Kynan Forney and C Todd McClure.
Defensive Overview: The 2003 Falcons finished last in the NFL in total defense - 29th against the run and 32nd against the pass. They allowed 422 points, which is far more than any competitive team can hope to get away with. Mora made his name developing a fast, aggressive defense in San Francisco, and he's scrapped the 3-4 in Atlanta in favor of a more conventional look. DT Rod Coleman, acquired from Oakland, will star on the line. Coleman is good against the run and has excellent pass-rush skills from the inside. Talented tackle Chad Lavalais, the team's 5th round pick, will join Coleman on the inside. DEs Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith should benefit from switching to the 4-3 if they can stay healthy. Both players missed parts of the preseason with various injuries. Former Pro Bowl LB Keith Brooking moves from the inside to the weakside position. Brooking is at his best in space and should prosper in the new system. He's joined by Matt Stewart on the strongside and Chris Draft in the middle. Draft missed time in the preseason due to asthma-related issues but should be ready for the regular season. Fourth-round pick Demorrio Williams could provide competition for Stewart on the strongside sooner than expected. The secondary took a big hit when first-round pick DeAngelo Hall fractured his hip in late August. Hall will miss 6-10 weeks, but he does have the potential to be a great CB. Tod McBride and Aaron Beasley will keep Hall's slot warm until he returns. The Falcons acquired Jason Webster from the 49ers, and the coaches are happy with his progress. Webster is a physical CB who will specialize in press coverage at the line. Bryan Hall and Cory Scott will get the nod at the safety positions.
Special Teams Overview: Punter Chris Mohr has good leg strength and is very accurate. Opposing teams returned only 35 of his 87 punts last season. Kicker Jay Feely struggled with accuracy last year but looks to rebound. The Falcons may have expected DeAngelo Hall to function as a return man, but now it will likely be a committee of backups who will perform that role.
The Falcons will rebound from a disappointing 2003 season if:..... Vick can slow down enough implement the new offense, Dunn and Duckett can carry the load, Price has the year the Falcons expect, and the defense begins to turn it around. In truth, Mora is performing major cosmetic surgery on a team that needed it. If the Falcons are not competitive in 2004, they can at least take the first steps toward a bright future.
|2004 CAROLINA PANTHERS|
Doug Farrar, PantherInsider.Com
Last Season's Record: 11-5 overall, 5-1 in the NFC South, First place in the NFC South, 2003 NFC Champions.
Last Play Off Appearance: February 1, 2004 - a 32-29 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Key matchup(s): October 3 - Atlanta, October 17 - at Philadelphia, October 31 - at Seattle, November 28 - Tampa Bay, December 5 - at New Orleans, December 18 - at Atlanta, December 26 - at Tampa Bay, January 2 - at New Orleans.
Star Power: Jake Delhomme (QB, 4th year, 6'2", 205 lbs.), Stephen Davis (RB, 9th year, 6'1", 230 lbs.), Steve Smith (WR, 4th year, 5'9", 179 lbs.), Kris Jenkins (DT, 4th year, 6'4", 315 lbs.), Mike Rucker (DE, 6th year, 6'5", 275 lbs.), Julius Peppers (DE, 3rd year, 6'6", 283 lbs.), Ricky Manning (CB, 2nd year, 5'9", 185 lbs.).
Notable Additions: Brandon Short (LB, 5th year, 6'3", 253 lbs.), Adam Meadows (T, 8th year, 6'5", 290 lbs.), Travis Claridge (G, 5th year, 6'5", 300 lbs.), Artrell Hawkins (CB, 7th year, 5'10", 190 lbs.).
Notable Subtractions: Todd Steussie (T, 11th year, 6'6", 308 lbs.), Jeno James (G, 5th year, 6'3", 315 lbs.), Kevin Dyson (WR, 7th year, 6'2", 212 lbs.), Deon Grant (S, 5th year, 6'2", 210 lbs.),
Notable Returnees: DeShaun Foster (RB, 2nd year, 6'1", 222 lbs.), Mushin Muhammad (WR, 9th year, 6'2", 217 lbs.), Dan Morgan (LB, 4th year, 6'2", 233 lbs.), Ricky Proehl (WR, 15th year, 6'1", 190 lbs.),
Offensive Overview: In 2003, the Carolina Panthers took the biggest strides of any team in the NFL, rebounding from a 1-15 record in 2001 and a 7-9 mark in 2002 to a close Super Bowl loss last season. While the defense is the anchor of the team, the Panthers' offense was a prototype for success - slam the ball down the opponents' throat, manage the ball and the clock and develop stars that will take ownership of their leadership roles over a period of time. QB Jake Delhomme entered rarified air in '03. He is the leader of this team, his teammates respect and respond to him, and he has the potential to put up even better numbers as the offense develops around him. What Delhomme will have to do is stay healthy - there's very little depth behind him in Rodney Peete and Chris Weinke. The Panthers may have the best depth at running back in the NFL. Starter Stephen Davis ran for 1,444 yards last season, When he missed time due to injury late in the season, UCLA grad DeShaun Foster came out of nowhere and kept the game going, ensuring the Panthers' playoff run. Davis is the power back who can run between the tackles, while Foster (who will get more reps in 2004) has the ability to run outside and create big plays. This is a scary rotation. Steve Smith made a case that he may have been the most valuable receiver in the NFL last year - the team's smashmouth style might not allow him to rack up "elite numbers", but Smith is a dynamo. He has great speed and is fearless when it comes to making the tough catch in traffic. Mushin Muhammad's fine year took a little heat off of Smith. Muhammad is a larger vertical specialist. Veteran Ricky Proehl provides savvy in the slot, but second-round pick Keary Colbert may take this spot soon. The Panthers' offensive line is a matter of some concern. After losing Todd Steussie and Jeno James, the team is looking to retool the line around Jordan Gross. Gross will supplant Steussie at LT and become the leader of this unit. Center Jeff Mitchell, the only Panther lineman to return to his original position in 2004, is a solid, underrated player. Travis Claridge will replace James at LG. The line will be rounded out on the right side by Bruce Nelson and Adam Meadows.
Defensive Overview: No question about it - when it comes to defensive lines, the Panthers possess the Gold Standard, a monstrous, hyperactive unit that caused major difficulties for opposing offenses in 2003. What's truly frightening is that this line can be even better in 2004. DT Kris Jenkins, quite possibly the best inside man in the league, is joined by Brenston Buckner and backup Kindahl Moorehead. Reserve Shane Burton was placed on injured reserve on September 5. At DE, sackmaster Mike Rucker is bookended by future mega-star Julius Peppers. This line is just unstoppable. At linebacker, the team will put great hope in the return of Mark Fields, who missed all of 2003 while recovering from Hodgkin's Disease. Fields was an inspiration to his team last year and there's no doubt that will continue. MLB Dan Morgan is solid when healthy, but there are some durability concerns. Will Witherspoon will be joined by veteran Brandon Short at the weakside position. The Panthers brought veteran Jessie Armstead in for a look-see, but had to place him on injured reserve. The Panthers played a lot of soft "Cover 2" in 2003, partially because they had the line to get away with it, and partially because the secondary was a unit in flux. The one sure star is Ricky Manning. Manning is a young potential shutdown corner who absolutely blew up in the postseason last year, seemingly grabbing every football thrown his way. The team will build the secondary around Manning with first-round pick Chris Gamble, veteran acquisitions Artrell Hawkins and Terrance Shaw, as well as safety Mike Minter, the only remaining starter from last season's opening-day lineup.
Special Teams Overview: Todd Sauerbrun might be the league's best punter. He helps greatly with field position, a valuable commodity in the Panthers' ball-control modus operandi. Kicker John Kasay made 32 of 38 field goals (including 13 of 17 from 40+ yards). The Panthers rewarded his consistency with a five-year deal in February. Steve Smith handles punt returns and Rod Smart takes care of kickoffs - both are excellent returners.
The Panthers will repeat as NFC Champions if:..... They stay healthy and continue to play as a unit. They're an extremely well-coached, intense team who may not have received the respect they deserved for their incredible season. The Panthers came within a late field goal of sending the Super Bowl into overtime, and there's nothing to suggest that they couldn't come back and finish the job this year.
|2004 NEW ORLEANS SAINTS|
Scott Eklund, SaintsInsider.Com
Last Season's Record: 8-8, 2nd NFC South
Last Play Off Appearance: 2000
Key matchup(s): Tampa Bay (October 10th); Kansas City (November 14th); @ Atlanta (November 28th); @ Carolina (January 2nd)
Star Power: Deuce McAllister (RB, 4th year, 6'1", 220 lbs); Joe Horn (WR, 9th year, 6'1", 205 lbs); Johnathan Sullivan (DT, 2nd year, 6'3", 315); Charles Grant (DE, 3rd year, 6'3", 280 lbs); Tebucky Jones (S, 7th year, 6'2". 218 lbs)
Notable Additions: Brian Young (DT, 5th year, 6'2", 290 lbs, signed from St. Louis); Sam Gash (FB, 13th year, 6'0", 245 lbs, signed from Buffalo)
Notable Subtractions: Dale Carter (CB, signed with Baltimore)
Notable Returnees: Donte Stallworth (WR, 3rd year, 6'0", 197 lbs); Aaron Brooks (QB, 6th year, 6'4", 205 lbs); LeCharles Bentley (C, 3rd year, 6'2", 300 lbs); Darren Howard (DE, 5th, 6'3", 280 lbs); James Allen (LB, 3rd year, 6'2", 240 lbs); Cie Grant (LB, 2nd year, 6'2", 220 lbs); Ashley Ambrose (CB, 13th year, 5'11", 190 lbs)
Offensive Overview: The Saint offense has playmakers but they just have not been able to put it all together. McAllister one of the best backs in the league and in 2003 he registered career highs in yards (1,641) and catches (69). He is a complete back with power and the speed to get outside. Horn is a dangerous wideout but he needs more production from Stallworth and Jerome Pathon to take away double-teams. Offensively, this team will only go as far as Brooks takes them. He is an enigma, because he can thrill you with an amazing play on one series and confound you the next with a horrible mental error. They are best when Brooks stays within the system. The line will struggle this season if Bentley, who has been a guard in his first two seasons, cannot fill the big shoes of 15-year veteran Jerry Fontenot at the pivot position. They run better than they pass so expect to see a heavy dose of McAllister all season.
Defensive Overview: The team has spent several high draft choices on their defensive line and it is now time for them to play up to their abilities. Grant, Sullivan and Howard have been inconsistent and they will be pushed by 2004 first-rounder Will Smith. Smith is smaller than both Grant and Howard but he adds a speed dimension that neither possesses. The play of the front-four will dictate how well the rest of the defense does, because they lack experienced playmakers at several positions. They recently lost starting CB Keyou Craver for four games due to his violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy. Ambrose and wiley veteran Fred Thomas are both experienced corners who will not be able to hold up in man coverage. With Jones in the deep middle they will play more zone than in previous years hoping to get to the QB quickly so opposing offenses won't be able to pick the Saint secondary apart. Keep an eye on 2004 second round choice Courtney Watson. He was the fastest linebacker coming out of college and his coverage skills will be a big help if Grant and Allen cannot get the job done.
Special Teams Overview: The kicking game is in the very capable hands of K John Carney and P Mitch Berger. Carney is nearly automatic inside of 45 yards but his lack of a big leg hurts the Saints' cause when the head to inclement weather. Berger ranked second in the NFC and fourth in the entire league with a 44.3 yard average. Michael Lewis is an excellent punt and kick returner but teams kicked away from him and he was inconsistent. Special teams coach Al Everest has tweaked the return schemes hoping to free Lewis to be creative in the open field.
The Saints will finish (9-7) and challenge for a playoff spot if...... Brooks plays up to his potential, the defense gets pressure on the quarterback and the secondary plays over their heads.
|2004 TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS|
Lane Adkins, BucsInsiders.Com
Last Season's Record: 7-9
Last Play Off Appearance: 2002
Key matchup(s): Week 3 at Oakland, Week 4 vs. Denver, Week 15 vs. New Orleans, Week 16 vs. Carolina
Star Power: Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks
Notable Additions: WR Tim Brown, WR Joey Galloway, WR Michael Clayton, OT Derrick Deese, OT Matt Stinchcomb, RB Charlie Garner, LB Ian Gold
Notable Subtractions: DT Warren Sapp, S John Lynch, WR Keenan McCardell
Offensive Overview: Quarterback Brad Johnson should have enough in the tank to be productive this season. Joey Galloway has looked impressive in camp, and Michael Clayton has progressed at a pace that has made the loss of Keenan McCardell easier to swallow. Charlie Garner will go as far as the new offensive line will carry him. Injuries have slowed the process of reassembling the offensive line, but the unit will be vastly improved in 2004.
Defensive Overview: Warren Sapp and John Lynch anchored this defense since the team wore orange. Now that they are gone Derrick Brooks and Simeon Rice will have to find a way to pick up the slack. Anthony McFarland will step in for Sapp, and CB Mario Edwards will help solidify the secondary. Chartric Darby was the starter at the nose when the Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2002 so the departure of Sapp will not be as glaring as most people think.
Special Teams Overview: Martin Gramatica has fallen from grace. He was one of the most dependable kickers in the game until last year. This is now the weakest link on the Buccaneers; whenever he lines up for a kick, listen for every Buc fan to take a deep breath. The bright side of this unit is the addition of Galloway to the punt return team. Speedy Frank Murphy could be the one to end the kick return woes that have plagued the Bucs since their inception.
The Buccaneers will show progress if.... Johnson stays healthy and the offensive line can avoid the penalties that stalled drive after drive last season. The NFC South is not as strong as many analysts think. Carolina and Tampa Bay are the only teams that play defense. New Orleans and Atlanta will not play defense, which should help the Bucs win the division.