The times may be changing for the New Orleans Saints . Always competitive under head coach Jim Haslett, the Saints were one victory shy of making the playoffs last season, but a greater focus is being put on Haslett and his staff to improve the NFL's worst defense.
While stopping the run has been an ongoing issue for the Saints, their pass defense and linebacking corps failed miserably in 2004. A spirited offense kept New Orleans in games, but its defense too often appeared a step slow and ultimately proved to be the team's demise.
While acquiring talent through free agency has been rather slow, two signings should improve the Saints' porous defense. Dwight Smith fills a critical void at safety, and the signing of linebacker Levar Fisher shouldn't be discounted.
Offensively, the Saints remain a potentially explosive unit led by quarterback Aaron Brooks and running back Deuce McAllister . The offense is being counted on to carry the team, but if the organization can improve the defense, New Orleans could be capable of becoming a playoff contender.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't been a playoff team since winning the Super Bowl during head coach Jon Gruden's first season. Hurt by salary-cap restraints, questionable personnel moves and a lack of focus, the Buccaneers have wallowed along in mediocrity.
A once stout Tampa Bay defense lost its intimidating style and precision play. Offensively, the Buccaneers were inconsistent due to a questionable running game and the ongoing saga of finding a starting quarterback.
But there appears to be a positive outlook for the Buccaneers in 2005. Gruden named veteran Brian Griese the starting quarterback and the Bucs could use the fifth overall selection in the draft on a running back to solidify the ground game. Though Tampa Bay has solid starters in place at many positions on the offensive side of the ball, depth is a concern.
Behind Michael Clayton and oft-injured Joey Galloway, there is little experience at wide receiver. Also, the depth behind the starting offensive linemen is alarming. Due to salary-cap limitations, the Buccaneers were unable to secure any true impact signings, although they were able to sign tight end Anthony Becht from the Jets and defensive tackle Chris Hovan from the Vikings.
Unless the Buccaneers can hit the bonanza on draft day, success in 2005 could rest on good luck and another coaching gem by Gruden. Still, even that may not be enough for a playoff spot.
Despite finishing strong last season, the Carolina Panthers have been busy revamping questionable areas on their roster. Since the offensive line and defensive backfield did not play as well as they did during the Super Bowl season of 2003, the Panthers have been proactive this offseason.
Carolina has worked diligently to improve its defense with the free-agent signing of cornerback Ken Lucas from Seattle. With the signing of guard Mike Wahle from Green Bay, the Panthers added a very good and versatile lineman to the stable. While depth concerns remain along the offensive line, the Panthers can be expected to add a veteran prior to training camp, as well as addressing their O-line needs in the draft.
The immediate focus in Carolina will be to add a potentially explosive playmaker type to the offense. In not paying wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad a $10 million bonus early in the offseason and releasing the veteran, the Panthers have a rather large void to fill on offense. With the 14th selection in the draft, the Panthers have been rumored to be interested in choosing Troy Williamson or Michael Clayton to add an explosive wide receiver to the passing game.
If Carolina can go through the 2005 season without being decimated by injury again, it could rise to the top of the NFC South and become a legitimate playoff contender.
The Atlanta Falcons were the latest team in the NFC South to become division champion. In a rather surprising first season under head coach Jim Mora , the Falcons tore through the division and became a rough-and-tough team.
Sporting a tremendous rushing attack, the Falcons placed an importance on improving their passing game. Quarterback Michael Vick struggled at times last season with the West Coast offense due to his impatience in the pocket, and if Atlanta expects to repeat as division champs, Vick must become a well-rounded and increasingly consistent player.
The Atlanta passing game was the one weakness in what was a surprisingly powerful offense that featured the running abilities of Warrick Dunn , T.J. Duckett , and Vick. In the draft, the Falcons could add depth to the receiver corps.
Defensively, the Falcons have lost many players from last year's improved defense. Starting outside linebacker Matt Stewart , Chris Draft , Ed Jasper, Travis Hall and Cory Hall all have departed, and the team signed linebackers Ed Hartwell and Ike Reese as well as safeties Rich Coady and Ronnie Heard . Depth at defensive line and linebacker could be concerns.
The Falcons remain the team to beat in the NFC South, but the gap between Atlanta and the remainder of the division is not nearly as great as the 2004 records may indicate.
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