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After an agonizing season stemming from the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, the Saints will try to establish some stability with a new head coach, quarterback and hopefully a new attitude. Atlanta brought in several new starters and its receiving corps should benefit from last year's experience, but make no mistake: Michael Vick's accuracy must improve for the Falcons to have a big season.
Jon Gruden did an exceptional job with the Buccaneers last season. Chris Simms and Tampa Bay's offensive line should take steps forward, but Tampa Bay remains a step below the Panthers -- who should challenge Seattle for NFC supremacy. At this point, Carolina looks like one of just a several NFL teams that don't have a glaring question mark and few teams can match their overall depth. The Saints are light years away from the Panthers, but Atlanta and especially Tampa should compete for wild-card spots.
The rich got richer this offseason. For some reason, it did not receive a lot of publicity, but the signing of defensive tackles Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu could turn the Panthers' defense into one of the best in the NFL. If Kris Jenkins is close to the player he was before his injuries, Carolina will have a rare group of interior linemen with a blend of outstanding size, power and quickness.
No one will benefit more from these signings than Dan Morgan. He should be well protected by his massive defensive tackles, allowing him to use his excellent speed and instincts to track down ball carriers and make game-changing plays. Interior running lanes are going to be scarce -- terrible news for opposing running backs. No team in the league can match Carolina's pairs of starting defensive ends and cornerbacks -- terrible news for opposing quarterbacks. The outside linebackers are unproven, but there is young talent with depth, and the extreme talent around them will aid in the transition.
On offense, the Panthers added Keyshawn Johnson, who should thrive against consistent single coverage, and DeAngelo Williams, who will help keep fragile DeShaun Foster fresh while adding insurance in case of another injury.
Last year, defenses keyed on Steve Smith and he still put up better numbers than any other receiver in the league. What Smith did last season was remarkable. With the addition of Johnson, Smith will continue to torture his opponents and actually might face single coverage on occasion. He might not match his 2005 numbers, but his value will not decrease. Expect Johnson to become a force on third downs and in the red zone.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme goes under the radar a bit, but he has proved capable of winning big games and taking his team deep into the playoffs. There has been some shuffling of the interior offensive line starters, but don't expect this to hold the Panthers back. Head coach John Fox has established himself as one of the best in the business and has a very talented deep roster to work with. Expect a run at the Super Bowl this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Despite inserting a new quarterback, having their star running back battle injury, Michael Clayton's sophomore meltdown and minimal talent along their offensive line, the Bucs managed to make the playoffs last season. Gruden got exceptional production out of his offense and might have done the best coaching job of his career.
This unit will be better in 2006. Cadillac Williams, Alex Smith and Simms have valuable experience under their belts, and the offensive line was clearly a major offseason priority. Clayton carried too much weight last season and lost a lot of his quickness while putting a strain on his lower body, resulting in numerous injuries. He reportedly has dropped the extra weight, and although he might not regain the production of his rookie season, expect him to have a better season than last year's disaster.
Veteran receiver Joey Galloway was simply outstanding last season despite facing the brunt of opposing defenses' attention. He re-emerged as a true game breaker, and Gruden will exploit this threat to open running room for Williams. Galloway has a history of injuries and must stay healthy.
Although he has never carried the load or proved to be a true workhorse, Williams has rare feet, burst and vision. He is capable of putting this offense on his shoulders and establishing himself as one of the very best running backs in the league. Gruden will lean on him in a big way.
It's a tribute to Monte Kiffin, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and several other Tampa Bay' defensive staples that little seems to change with the Buccaneers' defense year after year. It once again will rank in the top 10 overall in just about every team defensive category. Tampa's running game should be improved, which will help keep the Bucs' undersized defense fresher than in previous seasons.
The Bucs are one of the best-coached teams on both sides of the ball, and their roster is more talented than a year ago. They are a wild-card-caliber team that is a step behind Carolina for division supremacy.
Instead of fortifying their roster via free agency or the draft, the Falcons made three trades for starters. The additions of defensive end John Abraham, safety Chris Crocker and offensive tackle Wayne Gandy via trade will help shore up three positions of need.
With the Falcons' undersized defensive tackles, the loss of Ed Hartwell to injury and awful safety play, Atlanta struggled mightily to stop the inside run last season. Hartwell is healed fully; the linebacker play will be improved; and the Falcons brought in two new starting safeties. This should help remedy the problem, but the Falcons are still very light up front and could have their hands full against Tampa Bay and especially Carolina at the point of attack. Although he also is undersized, the addition of Abraham adds a proven pass-rushing presence that will allow Patrick Kerney and Rod Coleman to battle more one-on-one blocking schemes to get to the passer.
Overall, the defense is a fast aggressive unit that will get after the quarterback and is best suited to play with the lead. It is paramount, however, that Atlanta be able to run the football on offense to win the time of possession battle and keep its defensive line fresh.
Vick didn't progress as quickly as anticipated last season, and there were times when he looked simply awful and just couldn't hit open receivers. Much of the onus of his struggles rests squarely on his own shoulders, but Vick also battled injuries for much of the season and his wide receivers were raw and untested. Expect the passing game to improve with Roddy White stepping up his game in a big way while Alge Crumpler remains a rock of stability.
The Falcons do not put a premium on spending big money on offensive linemen, but they are very well coached and return four starters up front. Warrick Dunn has showed no major signs of slowing down, and Atlanta should be able to establish its vaunted zone running game in nearly every contest. Vick certainly has some attributes you cannot teach and remains one of the most dangerous players in the league, but for Atlanta to get over .500, he must take at least one huge step forward as a passer. Atlanta must at least split its opening two games when it travels to Carolina and hosts Tampa Bay; an 0-2 hole against these rivals would be difficult to overcome.
New Orleans Saints
Reggie Bush fell into the Saints' lap on draft day. Although he didn't fill a major need position, New Orleans did the smart thing and selected this playmaker with rare natural abilities. Although Bush probably will end up on "SportsCenter" with regularity throughout his career, he will not be able to stop the run, keep new quarterback Drew Brees upright or open gaping holes for the run game.
Assuming Brees, Joe Horn and Deuce McAllister show no lingering effects from their injuries, few teams in the league are on par with the Saints in terms of offensive skill position players. The problem on the offensive side of the ball will be up front, where New Orleans has only one lineman it can truly count on (Jammal Brown) and he was forced to move from right to left tackle.
The trading of Gandy to division rival Atlanta doesn't look so prudent anymore. Offensive line depth is also a major weakness, and all the reshuffling surely will result in continuity problems, especially early in the season. This problem cannot be overstated as the Saints are trying to break in a new quarterback and offensive philosophy.
On defense, new head coach Sean Payton has a fine set of defensive ends; Will Smith is in the process of becoming a bona fide star. The Saints also have a deep group of safeties, although Dwight Smith is rumored to be on his way out. The problem is that New Orleans' defensive tackles, linebackers and cornerbacks are mostly made up of journeymen and mediocre talents. The interior of this unit will struggle against Cadillac Williams, the Panthers' power rushing attack and Atlanta's productive zone-blocking running game. Expect the Saints defense to spend far too much time on the field in 2006.
This team has some pieces in place to build around and has done a nice job with its first year of overhauling a poor roster, but the nuts and bolts are still missing. The last four games of the season are brutal, but the Saints should consider the season a success if those games are still of importance. In this division, they will be fortunate to win six games.