Giants ”” New York could be even better than they
were last season, in making their first Super Bowl since the Parcells years.
Kerry Collins took big steps last year, before his abysmal Super Bowl
performance, and should be even more comfortable in Jim Fassel’s offense.
Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard are both dangerous targets, but if big Joe
Juravicious and speedy Ron Dixon can continue to improve, New York will have a
plethora of weapons. Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne will share the load in the
backfield. If the offensive line can stay healthy, the Giants could score a ton
of points. On defense, the addition of end Kenny Holmes will make an already
formidable pass rush positively scary. Michael Strahan, Cornelius Griffin and
Keith Hamilton round out the starters up front. Jessie Armstead and Michael
Barrow are the top linebackers, and Jason Sehorn anchors a strong secondary,
along with Shaun Williams, Sam Garnes and first round pick Will Allen. If the
Giants can continue to beat Philadelphia, they could be back in the Super Bowl.
Eagles ”” Philadelphia will have higher
expectations this year. They have, maybe, the most exciting young quarterback in
the league, in Donovan McNabb, and have an almost completely new group of wide
receivers, including first round pick Freddie Mitchell and free agent pickup
James Thrash. Philadelphia is also hoping for improvement from young Todd
Pinkston. The running game should be improved, as Duce Staley is back from
injury, and McNabb is a great scrambler, as well. All-Pro tight end Chad Lewis
led the team in catches. Defensively,
the Eagles are very strong. The line has one of the league’s top pass rushers
in Hugh Douglas and a top young tackle in Corey Simon.
Head coach Andy Reid feels he has one of the best defensive backfields in
the league, with Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor at the corners and Brian Dawkins
at free safety. The kicking game features punter Sean Landeta and David Akers,
who connected on 29 of 33 field
Redskins ”” New head coach Marty Schottenheimer
inherits a veteran team that underachieved to an 8-8 record amid numerous
distractions. Jeff George is the
starting quarterback, backed up by Dallas exile Tony Banks. Stephen Davis is the
top halfback, and an extremely dangerous runner, and wide receiver Michael
Westbrook can score anytime he touches the ball. Top draft pick Rod Gardner and
free agent Kevin Lockett will be the other wideouts. Tight end looks like a
strength, with Stephen Alexander. However, after letting guard Tre Johnson go,
the team’s interior line looks shaky. Bruce Smith and Marco Coleman will be
the ends with Dan Wilkinson needing
to step up at tackle. LaVar Arrington could have a very big season at outside
linebacker and the secondary should be good despite Deion’s retirement. The
”˜Skins could be a playoff team,
but they are more likely to struggle once injuries begin to mount.
Cardinals ”” This
figures to be a make or break year for QB Jake Plummer. He has thrown 45
interceptions and just 22 touchdowns since 1998, including 21 picks last season.
This year, with a refurbished offensive line, and the return of wide
receiver Rob Moore, Plummer could finally achieve the level of play many
predicted for him. Wide receiver David Boston comes off a great year last year.
Michael Pittman and Thomas Jones, last year’s top pick, should see most of the
carries out of the backfield. Up front, Leonard Davis, this year’s top pick,
along with free agent guard Pete Kendall help form what
could be, one of the best units in the league. While the offense has the
potential to be explosive, the defense could be just as explosive, for the
Cowboys ”” There may not be a worse team in the
entire league than the Cowboys. The release of Tony Banks forces second round
pick Quincy Carter into the starting role behind center, and he has struggled in
the preseason. Emmitt Smith is likely to face a season of eight man fronts in
his pursuit of Walter Payton career rushing record. In Joey Galloway and Rocket
Ismail, the Cowboys have two speedy wideouts, but they don’t have a solid
third man. The offensive line isn’t terrible, with Larry Allen, Solomon Page
and center Mark Stepnoski. The defense also has some decent players. Linebacker
Dexter Coakley is a great player, veteran strong safety Darren Woodson remains
one of the best, and young, troubled tackle Dimitrius Underwood played very well
down the stretch last year, but, overall, the unit is small, slow and
Bucs ”” With the addition of quarterback Brad
Johnson, the Bucs feel they have solidified their passing game. If Johnson can
stay healthy, the Bucs could have the best team in the league.
DT Warren Sapp had an amazing 16.5 sacks last year, and wants to shatter
Mark Gastineau’s season record this year. All the pieces are there for the
Bucs to challenge for a Super Bowl. Warrick Dunn had a breakout season in 2000,
and, along with Mike Alstott, gives the Bucs one of the best backfields in the
game. The offensive line should be stronger with the drafting of Kenyatta
Walker, and Shawn King returns as the backup QB. Keyshawn Johnson had a rough
season last year, but should improve on his 71 catches .
Next to Sapp on the defensive line is talented young tackle Anthony
McFarland, and free agent pickup Simeon Rice, and the linebackers are very
strong with Derrick Brooks, Jamie Duncan and Shelton Quarles. In the secondary,
Donnie Abraham and Ronde Barber are both ballhawks, and John Lynch is a leader
and big hitter. With Martin Gramatica and Mark Royals handling the kicking
chores, the Bucs don’t seem to have many, if any, weaknesses.
Lions ”” New head coach
Marty Mornhinweg and president
and CEO Matt Millen have tried to instill a new toughness in Detroit and turn
around a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 1982. They could break
that streak this year. Charlie Batch is a multi-talented quarterback who
hasn’t been able to stay healthy. With a new offense that highlights a quick
passing game, as well as some new talent on the offensive line, Batch may be
able to stay on the field more than he ever has. The wide receiver position is
loaded, with Herman Moore, Germaine Crowell, Johnny Morton, Larry Foster and
kick returner Desmond Howard, and running back James Stewart is a solid back who
doesn’t fumble. The offensive line should be better, thanks to the rafting of
Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola, as well as the signing of Brendan Stai. The
Lions are a strong defensive team, but they need cornerback Bryant Westbrook to
return to form, after missing much of last year to injury.
The linebackers look good, with Pro Bowler Stephen Boyd in the middle and
speedy Chris Claiborne outside, and, up front, the Lions have one of the top
tackle combinations around in Luther Elliss and James Jones. Detroit could be a
sleeper in the balanced NFC.
Packers ”” As long as Brett Favre is around, the
Packers have to be considered Super Bowl contenders. Favre is healthy this
season, and could return to his MVP form of a few years ago. Antonio Freeman
looked great in camp, until getting a concussion against the Broncos. He’s
expected to make a full recovery and play a big role with the Pack this season.
Bill Schroeder, Corey Bradford and rookie Robert Ferguson are the team’s other
receivers, as well as tight end Bubba Franks, who could have a big season. In
the backfield, Ahman Green, Dorsey Levens and William Henderson will give Green
Bay plenty of options. The Packers have a lot of depth on the defensive line. At
end, they have John Thierry, Vonnie Holliday and top pick Jamal Reynolds, while
at tackle, they will use Russell Maryland, Cletidus Hunt, Gilbert Brown and Jim
Flanigan. The secondary has good depth, as well, with Mike McKenzie, Tyrone
Williams and Antuan Edwards at the corners and Darren Sharper and LeRoy Butler
at safety. Don’t be surprised if the Packers make it a three-team race.
Vikings ”” Most thought the Vikings would fall on
tough times last year, but Daunte Culpepper proved to be the real deal. Tthe
Vikings went 11-5 before falling to the Giants in the NFC
Championship Game. Over the offseason, running back Robert Smith chose to
retire, and, during camp, tackle Korey Stringer passed away. The Vikings still
have Culpepper, along with Randy Moss and Cris Carter, but with a mediocre
defense, and a questionable running back situation, things could be tough.
Culpepper has an incredibly strong arm, great speed, and incredible size. With
the incomparable Moss and ageless Carter to throw to, Culpepper should have
another outstanding season. The rest of the offense is full of question marks.
The defense won’t help the offense too much. They lost Dwayne Rudd, their best
linebacker, as well as linemen John Randle and Tony Williams. The Vikings will
have trouble finishing over .500 in this division.
Bears ”” The Bears took some steps to
improve themselves offensively in the draft, taking wide receiver David Terrell,
running back Anthony Thomas and offensive lineman Mike Gandy with their top
three picks. They tried to improve their defense by signing two free agent
defensive tackles, Keith Traylor and Ted Washington, but the Bears still look
like an also-ran in the NFC. With the trade of Cade McNown to the Dolphins,
Shane Matthews, Jim Miller and Danny Wuerffel are the quarterbacks on the
roster. In addition to Terrell, the Bears have Bobby Engram, Marcus Robinson,
when he returns from injury, and a host of speedy and unproven pass catchers.
James Allen, Skip Hicks and Allen will all see time in the backfield. The Bears
should be able to stop the run, with the continued excellence of middle
linebacker Brian Urlacher, who was the Defensive Rookie of the Year last
season.. The leaders in the secondary are strong safety Tony Parrish and
cornerback Walt Harris.
Rams ”” If the
Rams slew of defensive changes work out, they could be back in the Super Bowl
after a one-year absence. With Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, they will be able
to score more than enough points, but the key to the team’s success will be
the play of youngsters like Damione Lewis, Adam Archuleta and Ryan Pickett.
Other new defenders will be safety Kim Herring, cornerback Aeneas Williams and
linebacker Don Davis. Defensive end Grant Wistrom, middle linebacker London
Fletcher and cornerback Dexter McCleon are back. The Rams don’t have to be
great on defense to win, but they need to give up less than the 471 points they
allowed last season. The offense will be as potent as ever. Both Warner and
Faulk missed time last year, but the team still scored 540 points. Wide receiver
Torry Holt continues to emerge and Isaac Bruce remains a top player. Up front,
Orlando Pace, Tom Nutten and Adam Timmerman are outstanding players. Look for
the Rams to win the West
Saints ”” The Saints may have been the most
surprising team in the league last season, going 10-6 and winning the NFC West.
The team’s biggest strengths are up front, where both the offensive and
defensive lines rank among the league’s best. The defensive line, led by ends
Joe Johnson and Darren Howard and tackles Norman Hand and La’Roi Glover,
quarterbacks without having to blitz. On the other side of the ball,
Aaron Brooks won the starting quarterback spot from Jeff Blake, but both have
the ability to move the team and win games. Ricky Williams could have a very big
season, if he can finally stay healthy, and top pick Deuce McAllister is
talented enough to play anywhere on the field. Joe Horn, Albert Connell and
Willie Jackson are the top wideouts on the depth chart, and Cam Cleeland is a
fine pass receiving tight end. The line is full of potential Pro Bowlers like
Willie Roaf, Kyle Turley, Wally Williams and Chris Naeole. The Saints
more likely return to the playoffs through the Wild Card.
49ers ”” San Francisco found a good quarterback in
Jeff Garcia, a real replacement for
Jerry Rice in Terrell Owens and a number of young defenders got to cut their
teeth. Garcia made the Pro Bowl and threw for 31 touchdown passes last season.
Owens made 97 catches despite being suspended for a game for his display against
the Cowboys. Owens, JJ Stokes and Tai Streets will be asked to contribute more.
Charlie Garner, the team’s leading rusher, is also gone, but Garrison Hearst,
Paul Smith and rookie Kevan Barlow will split time in the backfield. The 49ers
reacquired defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, and he’ll once again team up
with veteran Bryant Young. Top pick Andre Carter, as well as young John
Engelberger and Chike Okeafor, give the Niners good depth at end. The
linebackers will be young on the outside. A.500 record, or better, is a
Panthers ”” Carolina
comes into the season with the shakiest quarterback situation in the
league. Chris Weinke, the Heisman Trophy winner and a fourth round pick, looks
like the starter. Muhsin Muhammad is the team’s top receiver, and he’ll be
helped by the return of Patrick Jeffers. The venerable Wesley Walls remains one
of the best pass-catching tight ends around. The biggest weakness was their offensive line, and the Panthers took steps to
improve, signing Kevin Donnalley, Jeff Mitchell and Todd Steussie. That should
help the running game, which will be lead by Tim Biakabatuka and Richard
Huntley. The Panthers’ top pick in the draft was linebacker Dan Morgan, and
the team expects great things from him. The rest of the unit looks pretty
Falcons ”” The Falcons fans have some reason for hope. Top overall draft pick, Michael Vick has looked pretty good during the exhibition schedule, but he probably won’t see too much action when the real games begin. Chris Chandler will start, and, with the return of wide receiver Tony Martin, the Falcons might be able to score some points. The team