NFL Prospectus - The NFC, Part One

In Part One of a two-part NFC Preview, .NET's Doug Farrar looks at the balance of power in the NFC West and NFC South. Next week: The NFC North and NFC East.

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks

2003 Record: 10-6, Second Place in the NFC West.

Additions: DE Grant Wistrom (Rams), CB Bobby Taylor (Eagles), QB Brock Huard (Colts), OT Jeff Roehl (Giants)

Subtractions: DT Chad Eaton (released), DT John Randle (retired), SS Reggie Tongue (Jets), DT Norman Hand (Giants), CB Shawn Springs (Redskins), DE Lamar King (Bucs), CB Willie Williams (Steelers)

The Ups: There’s little question that Mike Holmgren’s Five-Year Reclamation Project took some fairly huge strides forward in 2003. QB Matt Hasselbeck finally entered the Pantheon Level, RB Shaun Alexander had another fine season, the WR trio of Darrell Jackson, Koren Robinson and Bobby Engram can go toe-to-toe with any triumvirate in the league at their best, and the offensive line is one of the best in the league.

The Seahawks have what might very well be the finest young defensive backfield in the NFL. Marcus Trufant and Ken Hamlin (the crown jewels of 2003’s best draft) lived up to (and in Trufant’s case, possibly exceeded) expectations, Ken Lucas may have been the team’s best defensive player in the season’s first half before suffering injuries and confidence problems down the stretch, and they’ve replaced Shawn Springs with former Eagle Bobby Taylor. Of course, replacing Springs with Kathi Goertzen would have been an improvement, but Taylor and his 6’3” frame will shore up the defense’s biggest liability last year…the ability of every single offense the Seahawks faced to “Alley-Oop” them to death. The signing of Grant Wistrom will provide DE Chike Okeafor with a very reliable bookend, and it also showed a Seattle sports fanbase rendered cynical by the parsimonious and incompetent behavior of the Mariners and Sonics that the Seahawks are putting it all on the table…NOW.

The Downs: First-year DC Ray Rhodes did improve on Seattle’s dead-last 2002 performance against the run, but there are still some fairly major issues with his idea of pass defense. This D was possibly the NFL’s most schizophrenic…scenarios in which opposing QBs could be sacked 6-8 times per game and still put up astonishing yardage were all too common. If Seattle’s defense doesn’t show more consistency this season, the NFC Championship appearance so many predict for this team simply will not happen.

There are a few other issues as well…that aforementioned group of WRs have got to hang on to the ball more, the team needs a legitimate short-yardage rushing threat away from the end zone (where Alexander’s nose for paydirt really kicks in), they should pick up another safety, and the eternal Walter Jones holdout drama will likely affect the offense to some extent early in the year.

Still, with each NFC West team facing a brutal schedule, 10 wins could take this division. Assuming that even half of the things that need to coalesce for the Seahawks actually do so, they should break the tape at the end of the race.

Projected 2004 Finish: 10-6, First Place in the NFC West.

St. Louis Rams

2003 Record: 12-4, First Place in the NFC West.

Additions: QB Chris Chandler (Bears), DE Sean Moran (49ers), S Justin Lucas (Cardinals), DL Bernard Holsey (Redskins)

Subtractions: QB Kurt Warner (Giants), DE Grant Wistrom (Seahawks), FS Kim Herring (Bengals), DT Brian Young (Saints), OT John St. Clair (Dolphins), OG David Loverne (Lions), LB Jamie Duncan (Falcons), TE Spencer Nead (Falcons), S Shane Walton (Steelers)

The Ups: The Rams were the 2003 NFC West Champs, Torry Holt did have an all-time season, DE Leonard Little terrorized enemy QBs (not to mention motorists and pedestrians) all year, and Marshall Faulk proved that he can still be very effective when he is a.) healthy and b.) inserted sideways into Mike Martz’ frequently puzzling game plans. First-round draft pick Steven Jackson will no doubt spell and eventually supplant Faulk as the team’s main threat on the ground, if he can get out of Martz’ doghouse. So, things look pretty solid, right? Well…

The Downs: …Problem is, this franchise is taking on some water. Anointed One Marc Bulger still has trouble with the crosshairs at long range, and Kurt Warner has taken his Wild West Show to New York. Veteran Chris Chandler provides some depth, but not nearly enough should Bulger’s issues with accuracy with the deep ball continue. Star defensive coordinator Lovie Smith has toddled off to try and reform the Bears, and both the defensive line and the secondary may begin to show a hurtful lack of depth and breadth. Without replacement-level talent on the horizon, it’s only a matter of time before the Rams’ considerable athletic talent is waylaid by the possibility that management doesn’t really understand the importance of the Big Picture. What happens to Little in the wake of his latest vehicular fiasco remains to be seen, but no matter what, the Rams will really miss Grant Wistrom…especially when they have to see him at least twice this year in a Seahawk uni.

Projected 2004 Finish: 9-7, Second Place in the NFC West.

Arizona Cardinals

2003 Record: 4-12, Last Place in the NFC West.

Additions: DE Bertrand Berry (Broncos), QB Shaun King (Bucs), FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo (Dolphins), CB David Macklin (Colts), WR Karl Williams (Bucs), LB Riall Johnson (Bengals)

Subtractions: QB Jeff Blake (Eagles), CB David Barrett (Jets), DT Marcus Bell (released), DT Barron Tanner (released), TE Steve Bush (Packers), DB Justin Lucas (Rams), QB Preston Parsons (released)

The Ups: While there’s no reason to think that new Cards Head Coach Dennis Green won’t improve the team’s fortunes fairly drastically over time, there’s a very long way even to contention for this team. Fortunately, Green is starting to assemble the horses to climb that mountain. First-round pick WR Larry Fitzgerald joins all-time rookie receiver Anquan Boldin to form the beginning of a potentially devastating attack. DEs Bertrand Berry (acquired from Denver) and draftee Darnell Dockett will certainly upgrade a “sackless” Cardinal defense. In two questionable moves, Green has decided to start Emmitt Smith at RB and has put a great deal of faith in QB Josh McCown. Is McCown another Hasselbeck-esque development project worthy of the time? In any case, Green’s efforts in and of themselves should have the Cards leapfrogging the depleted 49ers. They’ll certainly be playing with a great deal of emotion with the late Pat Tillman in mind.

The Downs: They’re still owned by the uber-cheap Bill Bidwill, and because of that factor alone, one never knows if this organization will ever take the final few steps necessary for real excellence.

Projected 2004 Finish: 7-9, Third Place in the NFC West.

San Francisco 49ers

2003 Record: 7-9, Third Place in the NFC West.

Additions: OL Scott Rehberg (Bengals), OL Greg Randall (Texans), DL Brandon Whiting (Eagles)

Subtractions: WR Terrell Owens (Eagles), RB Garrison Hearst (Broncos), OT Derrick Deese (Bucs), DL Sean Moran (Rams), QB Jeff Garcia (Browns), OG Ron Stone (Raiders), CB Jason Webster (Falcons), WR Tai Streets (Lions), DT Travis Kirschke (Steelers), TE Jed Weaver (Broncos), P Bill LaFleur (Chargers), S Zach Bronson (released), OL Greg Randall (released)

The Ups: Hmmm…thinking…still thinking…Well, maybe they’ll catch a few teams by surprise and avoid going 0-16!

The Downs: As Pete Townshend said at the Monterey Pop Festival, “This is where it all…ends…”

San Francisco fans must be apoplectic. $20 million+ over the cap, and for WHAT? Terrell Owens – gone. Jeff Garcia – gone. Julian Peterson – eternally unhappy franchised holdout. Offensive and Defensive Coordinators Jim Mora Jr. and Gregg Knapp have gone to Atlanta, leaving Dennis Erickson “wanting to do more”. Seahawks fans know enough to shudder at that thought.

The Niners seem to be banking their future on QB Tim Rattay, but it’s questionable whether Rattay will even be ready for the regular season as he recovers from a serious groin injury. RB Kevan Barlow has talent, but he isn’t the Jamal Lewis-type back who can carry an offense. In fact, there really isn’t one area in which this team goes into battle in 2004 with a distinct advantage over their opponents.

At what point do you need to start thinking about firing everyone in a front office? How bad does it have to get? The team is now touting a “rebuilding phase”, but who’s got the plans for the new house?

Projected 2004 Finish: 3-13, Last Place in the NFC West.

NFC South

Carolina Panthers

2003 Record: 11-5, First Place in the NFC South.

Additions: LB Jessie Armstead (Redskins), OL Adam Meadows (Colts), CB Artrell Hawkins (Bengals), DT Rod Walker (Packers), LB Brandon Short (Giants), OG Travis Claridge (Falcons), DB Terrance Shaw (Raiders)

Subtractions: OG Jeno James (Dolphins), CB Reggie Howard (Dolphins), S Deon Grant (Jaguars), OT Todd Steussie (Bucs), TE Jermaine Wiggins (Vikings), WR Kevin Dyson (Chargers), LB Greg Favors (Jaguars), CB Terry Cousin (Giants), OL Kevin Donnalley (retired)

The Ups: Considerable. Panthers’ head coach John Fox took over a moribund 1-15 franchise in 2001 and had them one kicker away from the Lombardi Trophy only two years later, the most impressive turnaround in NFL history. How did he do it?

Fox took a few pages from Bill Parcells’ playbook and focused on fundamentals – building a killer defense and a strong running game were key. The Panthers have what might be the finest defensive line in the NFL, and Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster form a bruising, effective rushing tandem.

The Downs: The fundamental problem with being a “Cinderella Team” is this: What does one do from 12:01 A.M. on? The Panthers aren’t going to sneak up on anyone this year – as the defending NFC Champs, they’ll have the bull’s-eye on their backs from Day One. Whether the “fluke factors” can turn into real long-term assets will decide how far Carolina can extend their success.

Projected 2004 Finish: 11-5, First Place in the NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons

2003 Record: 5-11, Last Place in the NFC South.

Additions: CB Jason Webster (49ers), DT Rod Coleman (Raiders), OG Steve Herndon (Broncos), LB Eric Johnson (Raiders), OL Eric Beverly (Lions), RB James Fenderson (Saints), WR Dez White (Bears), TE Hunter Goodwin (Vikings), QB Ty Detmer (Lions), CB Aaron Beasley (Jets), LB Jamie Duncan (Rams), TE Spencer Nead (Rams)

Subtractions: CB Ray Buchanan (Raiders), LB Sam Rogers (released), DT Devone Claybrooks (released), LB James Cotton (released), CB Juran Bolden (Jaguars), TE Brian Kozlowski (Redskins), OG Travis Claridge (Panthers), QB Kurt Kittner (Bengals), LB Keith Newman (Vikings), CB Tyrone Williams (released), WR LaTarence Dunbar (released), TE Sean Brewer (released)

The Ups: With former 49ers Defensive Coordinator Jim Mora, Jr. as the Falcons’ new head man and former SF Offensive Coordinator Gregg Knapp reprising his role in Atlanta, expect a big change over time in the offense Michael Vick runs. Mora and Knapp will want to run a far more structured prototype version of the West Coast Offense, as opposed to the conservative run/vertical pass plan of former Falcon Coach Dan Reeves. Whether Vick can make a quick transition to the new offense is a major question – his athleticism has never been in doubt, but his accuracy will have to improve. He’ll also have to graduate beyond the “make it up as you go along” school – the WCO requires choreography and precision. Having said that. Mora and Knapp have to be licking their chops at the idea of Vick as the ultimate WCO quarterback.

Fortunately, he will have a bit more weaponry than last year – to take some of the pressure off of WR Peerless Price, the Falcons picked up Dez White from the Bears, and expect RB Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett to be more involved in the passing game. Picking up Alex Gibbs (possibly the finest offensive line coach ever) from Denver may be the most underrated move in transforming Atlanta’s offense. And the addition of former Tampa Bay GM Rich McKay virtually assures the Falcons of consistent improvement over the next few years.

The Downs: It’s been a while since the Falcons had a balanced defensive attack, and this is something the team will continue to struggle with this year. First-round draft pick DeAngelo Hall will make a big difference in a weak secondary, but he can’t do it alone. The Falcons will have to outscore their opponents to win – they’re not going to shut anybody down just yet.

Projected 2004 Finish: 9-7, Second Place in the NFC South.

New Orleans Saints

2003 Record: 8-8, Third Place in NFC South.

Additions: RB Aaron Stecker (Bucs), DT Brian Young (Rams), FB Sam Gash (Bills), OL Jamar Nesbit (Jaguars)

Subtractions: TE Walter Rasby (Redskins), FB Terrelle Smith (Browns), CB Dale Carter (Ravens), RB James Fenderson (Falcons)

The Ups: Aaron Brooks is a talented (if inconsistent) quarterback, WRs Donte Stallworth and Joe Horn have tons of ability, and RB Deuce McAllister had his finest season in 2003, with almost 2200 total yards from scrimmage. The Saints are trying to re-tool an ineffective defensive unit with draft picks DT Will Smith from Ohio State and LB Courtney Watson from Notre Dame, as well as the signing of former Ram Brian Young. Every team has holes, but the Saints should have enough covered at this point to make something of a run. A wild-card berth should be expected after all the work this team has done. If they were in a different division…well, maybe.

The Downs: The term “underachiever” is a label to be avoided in any endeavor, but over the last few years, the Saints have given the analysts little choice. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2000, they seem stuck in an endless mire of mediocrity, and they don’t seem to be able to put their talent together enough to take the next step. Coach Jim Haslett has been living on borrowed time in this regard for quite a while…one has to think that at a certain point, changes will be made. Won’t they?

Projected Finish: 8-8, Third Place in the NFC South.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2003 Record: 7-9, Third Place in the NFC South.

Additions: WR Joey Galloway (Cowboys), FB Greg Comella (Texans), TE Dave Moore (Bills), OL Derrick Deese (49ers), OL Matt Stinchcomb (Raiders), RB Charlie Garner (Raiders), LB Keith Burns (Broncos), OL Matt O'Dwyer (Bengals), LB Jeff Gooch (Lions), P Josh Bidwell (Packers), OL Todd Steussie (Panthers), QB Jason Garrett (Giants), CB Tom Knight (Ravens), QB Brian Griese (Dolphins), RB Jamel White (Browns), RB Brandon Bennett (Bengals), CB Mario Edwards (Cowboys), LB Ian Gold (Broncos), DE Lamar King (Seahawks), WR Bill Schroeder (Lions)

Subtractions: DT Warren Sapp (Raiders), WR Keyshawn Johnson (Cowboys), OT Roman Oben (Chargers), RB Thomas Jones (Bears), RB Aaron Stecker (Saints), LB Nate Webster (Bengals), TE Todd Yoder (Jaguars), QB Shaun King (Cardinals), P Tom Tupa (Redskins), LB Dwayne Rudd (Raiders), S John Lynch (Broncos), WR Karl Williams (Cardinals), OT Cornell Green (Broncos), LB Jack Golden (Bears), FB Cecil Martin (released), TE Roland Williams (Raiders), CB Tim Wansley (released), S David Gibson (Browns), DT Darrell Russell (released), OT Chris Ziemann (released)

The Ups: The much-ballyhooed departures of Sapp, Lynch and Keyshawn aren’t the body blows some make them out to be – Sapp is past his prime, Keyshawn still hasn’t had a prime, and Lynch his hitting the tail end of his fine career, although the team will miss Sapp’s and Lynch’s emotional leadership. The problem will be in finding replacement talent. The offense has some serious question marks as always (especially at RB), but offense has never really been the calling card of this era of Buc Football. The defense still has DC Monte Kiffin, DT Anthony McFarland, DE Simeon Rice, LB Derrick Brooks and CB Ronde Barber, so don’t look for too big a downswing defensively.

The Downs: This may be a transitional year for the Bucs, as Gruden puts his stamp all over everything. Masterful GM Rich McKay is now in Atlanta (replaced by former Raider GM Bruce Allen), and the extensive incoming and outgoing transaction list speaks to a drastically different team. Gruden’s Super Bowl unit from two years ago focused on devastating D and just enough offense to win – look now for a more balanced approach and for the offense to become more and more of a factor over time.

Projected 2004 Finish: 6-10, Last Place in the NFC South.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to contact him at Top Stories