|TheInsiders.com 2004 NFL Football Preview|
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|2004 ARIZONA CARDINALS|
Doug Farrar, CardinalInsider.Com
Last Season's Record: 4-12 overall, 1-5 in the NFC West, Last place in the NFC West.
Last Playoff Appearance: January 10, 1999 - a 41-21 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Playoffs.
Key matchup(s): September 12 - at St. Louis, September 19 - at New England, October 10 - at San Francisco, October 24 - Seattle, November 21 - at Carolina, December 12 - San Francisco, December 19 - St. Louis, December 26 - at Seattle.
Star Power: Anquan Boldin (WR, 2nd year, 6'1", 218 lbs.), Freddie Jones (TE, 8th year, 6'4", 260 lbs.), Dexter Jackson (S, 6th year, 6'1", 205 lbs.), Freddie Jones (TE, 8th year, 6'4", 260 lbs.).
Notable Additions: Bertrand Berry (DE, 7th year, 6'3", 250 lbs.), Shaun King (QB, 6th year, 6'1", 215 lbs.) Troy Hambrick (RB, 5th year, 6'1", 233 lbs.)
Notable Subtractions: Jeff Blake (QB, 13th year, 6'1", 223 lbs.), Pete Kendall (G, 9th year, 6'5", 286 lbs.)
Notable Returnees: Emmitt Smith (RB, 15th year, 5'10", 221 lbs.), Josh McCown (QB, 3rd year, 6'4", 212 lbs.), Bryant Johnson (WR, 2nd year, 6'2", 214 lbs.).
Offensive Overview: The stellar offense that new head coach Dennis Green anticipated putting on the field in 2004 may not resemble the original architect's drawings at all to start the season. The Cardinals had to put RB Marcel Shipp on IR on Sept. 1 with a broken leg - he's out for the year. Super-rookie WR Anquan Boldin is out for at least half the season with a torn right knee, and Boldin's supporting cast, WRs Bryant Johnson and first-round pick Larry Fitzgerald, have been slow to practice with their own injuries. Green may try to run the three-wide with a patchwork unit to start the season, but he's got some serious unexpected challenges in putting a quality offense on the field over the first few weeks.
The Cardinals recently picked up former Cowboy RB Troy Hambrick, and he will likely share time with the man he replaced in Big D - all-time yardage leader Emmitt Smith. Hambrick had the worst yards-per-carry average (3.5) of any starter in the NFL, and while Smith hasn't lost one iota of the internal qualities which will propel him to the Hall of Fame, it's safe to say that his best days are behind him.
The Cards can put a fairly impressive vertical attack together when Johnson and Fitzgerald hit the field. When Boldin joins them, it could get interesting. The quarterback who will be throwing passes to them, third-year man Josh McCown, has Green's full support and will be given every chance to succeed.
The big news on the offensive line was the release of guard Pete Kendall, a controversial move to some. Kendall has since landed on his feet with the Jets.
Defensive Overview: Unfortunately, the Cardinal defense couldn't escape the injury bug, either. Second-year DE Kenny King was the pick to start until he re-injured his wrist - an injury that will have him missing all of 2004. The team will rely heavily on DE Bertrand Berry, a free-agent acquisition from the Broncos. Although under the national radar compared to the likes of Jevon Kearse and Adewale Ogunlye, Berry is one of the better defensive ends in the NFL. He'll have to really bring it this year for Arizona's line to make an impact. Third-round pick Darnell Dockett will be asked to make his mark right away.
At linebacker, the Cards drafted Auburn's Karlos Dansby in the second round, and it's hoped that Dansby will be able to make an impact fairly immediately. Ronald McKinnon will be the man in the middle, and Raynoch Thompson will line up frequently on the weak side, using his speed and athleticism to help with blitz packages. Thompson served a league suspension the last four games of the 2003 season - a situation that cannot repeat itself if the defense expects to make a difference.
The secondary lacks a "marquee player" and has been hamstrung by a lack of pressure from the front seven. Still, former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson did come away with a career-high six interceptions in 2003. CB Duane Starks missed all of '03 after blowing out his left knee in the preseason, and the team will need him healthy this year. Renaldo Hill, David Macklin and Adrian Wilson round out a unit that may have more questions than answers.
Special Teams Overview: Neil Rackers replaces Bill Gramatica at kicker. Gramatica only played four games in '03 after being shelved with a back injury. Rackers went made 9 of 12 field goal attempts in 2003 for the team (including 3 of 3 from 40+ yards). Punter Scott Player averaged 42.8 yards per punt in 2003. Kick returner Josh Scobey excelled last season - he had a 100-yard return. Punt returns, handled by Boldin last year, will be taken by former Buccaneer Karl Williams.
The Cardinals will become competitive if:..... they can somehow overcome a plethora of nasty injuries to rebound late in the year, Green does his "Offensive Genius" thing and everyone drinks the Kool-Aid, and the defense steps it up big-time. The hypothetical injury-free Cardinals had a good shot at 8-8, but the depleted version can get there with a great deal of determination.
|2004 SAN FRANCISCO 49'ERS|
Craig Massei, SFIllustrated.Com
2003 record: 7-9 (no playoffs), third in NFC West
Last playoff appearance: 2002 (advanced to NFC semifinals)
Key matchup(s): Sept. 12 Atlanta (FOX), Sept. 19 at New Orleans (FOX), Dec. 5 at St. Louis (FOX)
Star power: LB Julian Peterson, 5th year, 6-3, 235; C Jeremy Newberry, 7th year, 6-5, 310; RB Kevan Barlow, 4th year, 6-1, 238; S Tony Parrish, 7th year, 6-0, 210
Notable additions: WR Curtis Conway, NY Jets, 6-1, 200; DE Brandon Whiting, Philadelphia, 6-3, 285; WR Rashaun Woods, Oklahoma St., 6-2, 202; G Justin Smiley, Alabama, 6-3, 301; Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, Pittsburgh
Notable subtractions: QB Jeff Garcia (released); WR Terrell Owens (traded to Philadelphia); G Ron Stone (released); RB Garrison Hearst (released); Defensive coordinator Jim Mora (now head coach in Atlanta)
Notable returnees: FB Fred Beasley, OT Scott Gragg, WR Brandon Lloyd, LB Derek Smith, DE Andre Carter, CB Ahmed Plummer, QB Tim Rattay
Offensive overview: The 49ers are adding more of Erickson's spread-the-field philosophy to the tried-and-true schemes of the franchise's vaunted West Coast attack. They're doing it with a fresh cast of characters that includes seven new starters. The Niners are the first team in NFL history to begin a season with a new starting quarterback, a new featured running back, two new starting receivers and a new starting tight end, not to mention new starters at right guard and left tackle. Fifth-year veteran Rattay gets the call at quarterback after working his way up in the system the past four years, and his knowledge of the offense, patience in the pocket, accurate arm and quick release will give the Niners a dimension they didn't have in previous seasons with the scrambling Garcia at the controls. While Rattay develops a rapport with his young and inexperienced cast of receivers, the Niners will focus on establishing their running game with Barlow slashing behind Pro Bowler Beasley and a revamped line that could be quicker and more athletic than last year. After taking over from Hearst, Barlow is primed for a breakout season, but opponents will stack the box in the early going and dare the Niners to throw. That's where Rattay is dangerous, because he can find and hit open receivers. But he'll need time in the pocket, and the Niners must protect him from the merciless blitzes he's likely to see throughout the season. If Rattay is kept upright on a consistent basis, he will pick opponents apart, which will open things for a promising running game and make San Francisco's attack hum once again.
Defensive overview: Robinson arrives from the Steelers to take over from Mora as defensive coordinator, and he brings with him an intense personality and aggressive philosophy that features more use of 3-4 schemes. The 49ers will remain a base 4-3 team, as they have been in the past, but expect to see much more 3-4 sets in which the Niners can make optimum use of their talented linebacker corps. Peterson and Smith combine with Jeff Ulbrich and Jamie Winborn to give the Niners four active playmakers who need to be on the field as much as possible - and will be this season. The key for San Francisco, however, is still up front, and that's an area of weakness for the Niners, who don't have any quality depth behind starters Bryant Young and Anthony Adams. Those guys - and the players who followed them into games - were pushed around by opponents during the preseason, and that's a trend the Niners must stop when the real games begin. San Francisco also needs a better pass rush to take pressure off an improved, developing secondary that will feature a few new faces this season. The Niners ranked second in the NFC with 42 sacks last year, but that figure was bloated by blitzing linebackers. The Niners played it vanilla during Robinson's first preseason with the team, but they would like to be more aggressive on the edges in coverage this year. If their pass rush allows them to be, they will. There is pressure on the defense to carry the team this year because of all the new faces on offense, and it wasn't up to the task during the exhibition season.
Special teams overview: The implosion of young kickers Jeff Chandler and Owen Pochman - along with the shaky performance of punter/holder Bill LaFleur - led directly to three close losses last season and cost the 49ers a playoff berth. Veteran Todd Peterson has brought stability to the kicking game and the Niners drafted University of Pittsburgh product Andy Lee in the sixth round to take over the punting duties. Peterson didn't miss a kick in the preseason and Lee was getting the hang - and the hang time - of NFL punting by the end of summer. Arnaz Battle will be given an opportunity to return punts while Jimmy Williams - the NFL's leading punt returner in 2002 - wears a cast to protect his broken thumb. The coverage units are stocked with young talent and should continue the gradual progress they displayed last year.
The 49ers will make the playoffs if... Rattay remains healthy and is given time to throw, Barlow breaks loose for a big rushing season, the defensive interior finds ways to plug its problems and the pass rush produces enough heat to prevent opposing QBs from picking apart the secondary. And that, folks, is a whole lot of big ifs.
|2004 SEATTLE SEAHAWKS|
Scott Eklund, Seahawks.NET
Last Season's Record: 10-6, 2nd NFC West
Last Play Off Appearance: 2003
Key matchup(s): @ New Orleans (September 12th); St. Louis (October 10th); @ San Francisco (November 7th); Dallas (December 6th); @ Minnesota (December 12th)
Star Power: Matt Hasselbeck (QB, 6th year, 6'4", 225 lbs); Shaun Alexander (RB, 5th year, 5'11", 225 lbs); Darrell Jackson (WR, 5th year, 6'0", 200 lbs); Steve Hutchinson (OG, 4th year, 6'5", 313 lbs); Walter Jones (OT, 8th year, 6'5", 310 lbs); Anthony Simmons (OLB, 7th year, 6'1", 240 lbs); Marcus Trufant (CB, 2nd year, 5'11", 200 lbs); Ken Hamlin (S, 2nd year, 6'0", 205 lbs)
Notable Additions: Grant Wistrom (DE, 7th year, 6'4",272 lbs, signed from St. Louis); Bobby Taylor (CB, 10th year, 6'3", 216, signed from Philadelphia)
Notable Subtractions: Reggie Tongue (S, signed with New York Jets); Shawn Springs (CB, signed with Washington); Norman Hand (DT, signed with New York Giants)
Notable Returnees: Chris Terry (OT, 6th year, 6'5", 300 lbs); Cedric Woodard (DT, 5th year, 6'2", 310 lbs); Ken Lucas (CB, 4th, 6'0", 205 lbs); Koren Robinson (WR, 4th year, 6'1", 205 lbs); Chad Brown (OLB, 12th year, 6'2", 245 lbs); Mac Strong (FB, 12th year, 6'0", 245 lbs)
Offensive Overview: The offense that Holmgren employs is dynamic and dangerous. Their strength lies in the number of playmakers they have on offense. If a defense takes one aspect away, Holmgren has the players to go to a different style. Holmgren believes that it is easier to complete a pass for five yards than it is to run for five yards. He passes about 60% of the time and mixes in quick hitting runs by Alexander and backup RB Maurice Morris. Their weakness lies in the hands of the offensive line. If the line doesn't do its job, the entire offense collapses behind it. Jones is conducting his annual (third season in a row) holdout after being named the team's franchise player and Terry is nursing a sore shoulder. C Robbie Tobeck has been nicked up in camp but he is solid in the pivot. The Hawks are hopeful that OG Floyd "Porkchop" Womack will be ready to take over for "Greybeard" Chris Gray and solidify the RG position. If they can gel like they have before this offense could be very scary.
Defensive Overview: The weakness of the defense is that the front four are an unknown quantity. First-round draft choice Marcus Tubbs is being counted on to solidify the middle and that is asking a lot from a rookie. Woodard along with DTs Rashad Moore and Rocky Bernard return and have talent but it remains to be seen whether they can get the job done on a weekly basis. Not wanting to be left out the Linebackers are a question mark as well. Brown is out for the first four game with a broken leg and behind him are unproven backups. Simmons is a playmaker but the middle spot is still unsettled. The secondary is the strength. Trufant is becoming a shut-down corner and Lucas has had an excellent offseason. Trufant and Lucas along with Taylor as the third corner form one of the best trios in the league.
Special Teams Overview: Second-year K Josh Brown is looking to build on a solid rookie season. His kicks need to be deeper and he still needs to work on his accuracy after hitting only 73 percent of his field goal attempts. P Tom Rouen is a consistent pooch and directional punter. Engram and Morris are the leading returners and while Engram is consistent, Morris has the big-play potential that Holmgren is looking for. Backup WR Alex Bannister went to the Pro Bowl last season for his work on special teams.
The Seahawks will finish (12-4) and play in the Super Bowl if Hasselbeck continues to mature as a leader, the receivers catch everything that comes their way and the defensive middle plays up to its talent level.
|2004 ST. LOUIS RAMS|
Barry Waller, GridIronGateway.Com
2003 Record: 12-4 (2nd in NFC, 1st in NFC West)
Last Playoff Appearance: 2003
Key matchup(s): 10/10/04@ Seattle, 4:15 Eastern Time FOX-TV, 11/14/04 vs. Seattle, 1 PM Eastern Time.
Star Power: Torry Holt, WR, 6th year, 6-0, 190; Isaac Bruce, WR, 11th year, 6-0, 188; Marshall Faulk, RB, 11th year, 5-10, 211; Marc Bulger, QB, 3rd year, 6-3, 215; Orlando Pace, LT, 8th year, 6-7, 325; Adam Timmerman, RG, 10th year, 6-4, 310; Aeneas Williams, FS, 14th year, 5-11, 200; Leonard Little, LDE, 7th year, 6-3, 263; Jeff Wilkins, PK, 11th year, 6-2, 205.
Notable Additions: Steven Jackson, RB, 1st round pick 2004, 6-2, 231
Notable Subtractions: Grant Wistrom, DE, Signed by Seattle, 6-4, 272; Kurt Warner, QB, Cut June 1, Signed by N.Y.Giants, 6-2, 200; Kyle Turley, RT, I.R.(BACK), 6-5, 309
Notable Returnees: Jerametrius Butler, CB, 4th year, 5-10, 181; TE Brandon Manumaleuna, TE, 4th year, 6-2, 288
Offensive Overview: The Rams are better at wide receiver and running back than they were heading into last season. They receiving corps is led by 2003 league leader in receptions and yards, Torry Holt, who was second in the NFL with 12receiving touchdowns. Isaac Bruce, the Rams all-time leader in receptions and yards, also returns, still able to get open and make big plays. The #3 receiver is Dane Looker, who caught 47 passes in that role, finishing 6th in the NFL with 22 third down catches. 2003draft picks Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald return, college superstars coming off injury-slowed rookie seasons, as does ex-Arena League star Mike Furrey, who caught 20 balls last season. Brandon Manumaleuna and veteran Cam Cleeland return at tight end. That group should make for a big season from QB Marc Bulger, and if the offensive line, hurt by loss of right tackle Kyle Turley and center Dave Wohlabaugh, can protect him adequately, the former "Greatest Show on Turf" could be reborn in 2004. The Rams hope that Marshall Faulk can stay healthy and come close to his past form after off- season knee surgery. Faulk has been able to practice more this summer in camp, and has seen more action this pre-season than he has in a couple years. The Rams traded up on draft day to grab Oregon State star Steven Jackson, who has made his presence known very quickly in pre-season. Lamar Gordon, who finally seems to be 100% after ankle surgery, provides more depth. Arlen Harris returns as the 4th back.
Defensive Overview: The Rams brought in ex-Cardinal defensive coordinator Larry Marmie to replace Lovie Smith, now the Bears head coach, in that role. Marmie has said there won't be a big change in the system the Rams have employed defensively under Smith, that uses lots of "cover two" with an emphasis on creating turnovers. The key to that is the pass rush provided by star defensive end Leonard Little. The Rams lost FA Grant Wistrom to the Seahawks, but hope Bryce Fisher can provide a better pass rush than Wistrom has the last couple seasons. They also have high hopes for rookie Anthony Hargrove. At tackle, the Rams lost Brian Young in free Agency, and 2003 #1 pick Jimmy Kennedy to a broken foot, but the Rams hope their two starters, Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett, can finally blossom, suffering through injury problems since they were drafted in the first round of the 2001 draft. Underrated veteran captain Tyoka Jackson is the third tackle and also plays some at end. 2004 4th rounder Brandon Chillar appears to have beaten out incumbent Tommy Polley on the strong side, joining former UCLA Bruin teammate Robert Thomas, and talented "Will" linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa as starters. Aeneas Williams again anchors the backfield at free safety, with budding star Adam Archuleta starting at strong safety. The Rams have lost their best cornerback, Travis Fisher, to a broken arm. He should return before the season ends, with second year speedster Kevin Garrett filling in. The Rams matched an offer from the Redskins this off-season to retain Jerametrius Butler, who did a very credible job in 2003, his first year as a starter.
Special Teams Overview: The Rams replaced special teams coach Bobby April with long time veteran assistant Mike Stock, in hopes of improving on what has been a disappointing unit for four years. The biggest positives for the Rams special teams is the placekicking crew, consisting of Pro-Bowl kicker Jeff Wilkins, arguably the Rams MVP in 2003; deep snapper Chris Massey, who Martz called "the best in the NFL", and holder Dane Looker who was flawless in his first year on the job last season. Ageless Sean Landeta returns as the punter in his 20th NFL season. The return specialist jobs are still in some doubt, though Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey appear to be the favorites.
The Rams will win their division if.......... they can continue to dominate at home, and if they can handle the Seahawks head to head. If they can somehow win enough games in a very tough schedule to gain home field advantage, a return to the Super Bowl is not out of reach. They must stay healthy from here on, especially on the lines, where they are thinnest in depth. The new emphasis on calling the defensive holding and illegal contact rules as written will no doubt help Mike Martz offense more than any other, but the defense has to do its part, and they must come together quickly under Marmie.