NFL Preview: NFC South correspondent Doug Warren previews the NFC South, part of our NFL preview party! NFL Preview's by Doug Warren
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NFC South Preview

1. Carolina Panthers (Projected Finish: 12-4)

The Panthers get no love and it upsets me. Last year was no fluke. Jake Delhomme is a damn' good quarterback; anyone who watched that kid in the playoffs last year could see his poise, and leadership under fire. HB Stephen Davis is a workhorse who resurrected himself last season after rotting on the vine with Steve Spurrier in D.C. Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith are two of the toughest, most physical wideouts in the game. Veteran WR Ricky Proehl is clutch and rookie Kerry Colbert should get playing time right away. The key to the offense this season is how the revamped O-line, led by LT Jordan Gross and C Jeff Mitchell, gels. If they can open the way once again for Davis, the play-action game will click and the Panthers will hit the big play.

As talented as Carolina's offense is, it is the defense that sets the tone. RE Mike Rucker, LE Julius Peppers and RT Kris Jenkins are three of the best young D-linemen in the NFL. The return of SLB Mark Fields from Hodgkin's disease will help boost the LB corps. If MLB Dan Morgan can stay healthy for a full season, he could be a Pro Bowler.

During last year's Super Bowl run, CB Ricky Manning blossomed; he and SS Mike Minter return to lead the secondary. K John Kasey returns as does P Todd Sauerbrun. KR Rod Smith and PR Steve Smith also are back, making the Panther special teams one again formidable.

Carolina and their coach John Fox still have one more game to win. They will once again be the best team in the NFC.

2. Atlanta Falcons (Projected Finish: 8-8)

QB Michael Vick is back at full strength, and with him once again rides the hopes of the Falcons. New head coach Jim Mora Jr. has brought a sense of urgency to this team and has worked hard to improve Atlanta's work ethic. Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett will once again split time as the primary ballcarrier, meaning that once again Atlanta has no Franchise RB. Expect Peerless Price's talents to be on full display in Mora's and offensive coordinator Greg Knapps' new offense. Legendary O-Line coach Alex Gibbs comes over from Denver to reshape the Falcons' line. With the new schemes and a healthy Vick, Atlanta's offense should improve on its ranking from last season, when it finished 29th overall.

On defense, Atlanta will switch from a two-gap, read-and-react scheme, to a more aggressive one-gap style. As a result, LE Patrick Kerney and free agent newcomer, DT Rod Coleman, could have the best seasons of their careers. Keith Brooking moves from MLB to the weakside, which will allow him to utilize his speed and pass-rushing abilities. Rookie CB DeAngelo Hall was expected to be an immediate starter, but he suffered a broken hip during pre-season and will miss at least the first two months of the season. Hall's loss is a big blow to an Atlanta pass defense that finished dead last in 2003.

Atlanta will be a much better team in 2004 than the one that quit on Dan Reeves last season. Nevertheless, they are at least a year away from being a playoff team again.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Projected Finish: 7-9)

Well, there is no question that the Bucs are now under the complete control of head coach John Gruden. Gone are motor-mouths and lockeroom distractions Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson. Gone is former GM Rich McKay, with whom Gruden had a very public disagreement with over the handling of Johnson's departure last season. Now that Gruden has control off the field, his next task is to improve the Bucs on the field. With an aging QB (Brad Johnson), an aging group of starting RB's (Charlie Garner and Mike Alstott), old WR's (Tim Brown, Joey Galloway) and a holdout Pro Bowl WR (Keenan McCardell), and an aging offensive line (, it won't be as easy as Child's Play for Coach Chucky to get his offense back to prominence.

If the Bucs do get into the playoffs in 2004, their defense will have to lead the way. DE's Simeon Rice, Greg Spires and Dewayne White; along with DT Anthony McFarland will head up a very tough D-Line. WLB Derrick Brooks remains the best outside linebacker in the NFL. Brooks will team with MLB Shelton Quarles and free agent SLB Ian Gold (Broncos) to give the Bucs a LB corps to rival their front four. Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber are prototypical Cover-2 CB's. Mario Edwards is a good nickel back and SS Jermaine Phillips and FS Dwight Smith, (replacing the departed John Lynch) make Tampa's secondary strong once again.

The Buccaneers offseason housecleaning resulted in more than 20 new players joining the roster this season. That turnover, along with the aging offense will be the main reason why the Bucs will finish below .500 for the second-straight season.

4. New Orleans Saints (Projected Finish: 7-9)

This team has tremendous physical talent. They also have a tremendous amount of mental midgets on the roster. For the last three seasons, no team in the NFL has self-destructed with such precision and dedication to detail.

I see no signs that this will change in 2004. QB Aaron Brooks still makes as many mistakes as big plays. WR Joe Horn still does a great job missing blocks and dropping passes; while the offensive line continues to overshadow its physical talents by blowing assignments, giving up sacks and collecting false start penalties. RB Deuce McAllister is a great talent, but he cannot do it alone. If the mental mistakes stop, and WR Donte' Stallworth can finally have his breakout season, the New Orleans offense could become one of the NFC's elite.

On the other hand, the Saints defense must improve against the run (ranked 27th in 2003) if they are to dethrone the Panthers and capture the division. New Orleans has spent their last 3 first-round selections on D-Linemen (DE Charles Grant 2002, DT Jonathan Sullivan 2003, and DE Will Smith 2004) and this offseason brought in free agent veteran Brian Young (Rams). If these four don't step up this season, the overmatched linebackers and secondary will be forced to make a lot of tackles, like they did a year ago.

On the bright side, K John Carney, P Mitch Berger and PR/KR Michael Lewis are good, but the coverage and return units must do a better job in establishing field position.

The Saints have talent, but just aren't tough enough upstairs to get it done. They have a good shot at being disappointing once again. If they do, it could finally cost Jim Haslett his job.

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