Giants could be larger force in NFC

August 28, 2001 4:59 AM
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East

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 goal attempts.

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 opposition. Andre Wadsworth is the headliner up front, but has yet to deliver on his vast potential, while Rob Fredrickson is easily the best of a mediocre linebacking corps. The secondary will miss Aeneas Williams, who was traded to the Rams, but strong safety Pat Tillman is back, after leading the team with 110 solo tackles.

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 inexperienced.

Central

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.

West

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, should  pressure  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 possibility.

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 average.

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