2005 Season Previews
NFC South
Carolina Panthers (Last Year: 7-9).
Major Additions:
QB Stefan Lefors, RB Eric Shelton, WR Rod Gardner, G Mike Wahle, G Evan Mathis, OLB Thomas Davis, MLB Chris Draft, CB Ken Lucas, S Marlon McCree, S Idrees Bashir, P Jason Baker.
Major Subtractions:
QB Rodney Peete, WR Muhsin Muhammad, TE Freddie Jones, G Doug Brzezinski, DE Kavika Pittman, OLB Mark Fields, OLB Brian Allen, CB Artrell Hawkins, S Damien Richardson, S Travares Tillman, P Todd Sauerbrun.

Offense This Year: Excluding the Tennessee Titans, Carolina had the most injuries in the NFL last season. However, the source of their struggles when they were 1-7 stemmed from the losses they incurred up front. Only two starters -- right tackle Jordan Gross and center Jeff Mitchell -- returned from an offensive line that anchored the Panthers to their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The Panthers responded by signing Mike Wahle and Tupe Peko, and drafting Evan Mathis with their third-round pick this off-season. Carolina's offensive line is now talented and deep, but there is some concern at left tackle, which is currently occupied by Travelle Wharton, a third-round selection last season. Wharton's performance might dictate how far the Panthers advance in the playoffs. The offensive line, of course, blocks for three very talented running backs and one promising rookie. Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster return from injury. Nick Goings, who finished the 2004 season with five 100-yard performances in the team's final seven contests, is third on the depth chart. Second-round pick Eric Shelton figures to be Carolina's running back of the future. A successful running game will help set up play-action for Jake Delhomme, one of the better quarterbacks in the league. Delhomme will not have the services of Muhsin Muhammad, who signed with Chicago. However, Delhomme still has Steve Smith, Keary Colbert, Ricky Proehl and newly-signed tight end Freddie Jones.
Defense This Year: The best defense in the NFC? It's certainly between Carolina and Minnesota. The Panthers have the best defensive line in the NFL. Kris Jenkins is unequivocally the elite defensive tackle in the league, while defensive end Julius Peppers would have won the Defensive Player of the Year Award, if it wasn't for Ed Reed. Peppers registered 11 sacks, four forced fumbles, two interceptions and one touchdown. The rest of the defensive line is comprised of Pro Bowl candidates Brentson Buckner and Mike Rucker. The linebackers, although not as talented as the defensive line, are very solid. The group is led by Dan Morgan, one of the better middle linebackers in the NFL. Morgan is supported by Brandon Short and Will Witherspoon. However, the player to watch is first-round selection Thomas Davis, who can either play outside linebacker or safety. Davis, who will probably play the former, has drawn comparisons to Derrick Brooks. Carolina's excellent defense is rounded out by a great secondary. The Panthers arguably have the best trio of cornerbacks in the league. Ken Lucas and Ricky Manning Jr. are penciled in as the starters, while second-year star Chris Gamble will play the nickel. Safeties Idrees Bashir and Mike Minter are also great players, who will garner some Pro Bowl consideration. The Panthers are loaded with talented and depth on defense.
Schedule and Intangibles: The Panthers have yet to defeat Michael Vick. They will probably need to do so in order to win the NFC South... With the Super Bowl Loser Curse transferred to Philadelphia, Carolina can focus on getting back to the Promised Land. It's hard to imagine that the Panthers will suffer as many injuries as they did last year... Kicker John Kasay, one of the league's finest, was 19 of 22 in 2004... Helping Carolina bounce back from oblivion is a relaxing third-place schedule. Weak, non-divisional foes include Miami, Green Bay, Arizona, Detroit and Buffalo.

Analysis: Carolina will bounce back from the woeful 7-9 season they had following their Super Bowl run. Another Super Bowl appearance is more than likely.

Projection: 11-5 (1st in the NFC South).

Atlanta Falcons (Last Year: 11-5).
Major Additions:
WR Roddy White, OT Barry Stokes, G Matt Lehr, DT Brandon Mitchell, DT Jonathan Babineaux, OLB Michael Boley, OLB Ike Reese, MLB Ed Hartwell, S Ronnie Heard, K Todd Peterson, P Toby Gowin.
Major Subtractions:
DT Travis Hall, DT Ed Jasper, OLB Matt Stewart, MLB Chris Draft, MLB Jamie Duncan, CB Aaron Beasley, S Cory Hall, K Jay Feely, P Chris Mohr.

Offense This Year: Atlanta's offense was boom or bust in 2004, as they scored more than 27 points on five occasions, and less than 15 points six times. The difference in those games? In Atlanta's five high-scoring contests, Michael Vick averaged 8.2 carries and 71.8 yards. When Atlanta failed to light up the scoreboard, Vick averaged just 5.2 carries and 47.8 yards, excluding the 14-10 win over the New York Giants. When Vick has shown reluctance to run, which is Jim Mora Jr.'s decision, the Falcons have struggled. Vick's ability to run the ball is what makes him lethal, so he must not become a pocket passer, despite what his naive coach wishes. Another reason why Vick should take matters into his own hands is the lack of talent he has surrounding him. Warrick Dunn is lightning-quick, but is not an every-down back. T.J. Duckett is a monstrous running back, but like Dunn, cannot be featured every single down. Vick also lacks a number-one receiver. Peerless Price, who was brought in two years ago to form a potent combination with Vick, disappointed last season, catching just 45 passes for 575 yards. Atlanta has a pair of first-round selections that need to improve in a hurry. Michael Jenkins, drafted last season, registered just seven receptions in 2004. Roddy White was drafted this year, but is currently fifth on the depth chart. Even the offensive line is lackluster. Right tackle Todd Weiner is the best of the bunch, but the other four -- Kevin Shaffer, Mookie Moore, Todd McClure and Kynan Forney -- would be second stringers on almost any other team in the NFL. Vick's lone weapon on offense is tight end Alge Crumpler. The All Pro tight end had 48 receptions for 774 yards and six touchdowns last season. This offense is the league's worst if Vick gets injured. That is why Vick was my MVP last year. He is the greatest difference maker on any team in this league, as long as he is willing to run.
Defense This Year: Along with Vick, Atlanta's defense is the reason they were able to reach the NFC Championship Game. The Falcons excelled at putting pressure on the quarterback, as they accumulated 48 sacks, led by Patrick Kerney, 13, and Rod Coleman, 11. The two defensive linemen are accompanied by promising, young defensive tackle Chad Lavalais and Brady Smith, who pitched in with six sacks. Atlanta struggled in other departments, as they were mediocre at defending the run and stopping the pass. The Falcons' key free-agent acquisition this off-season was middle linebacker Edgerton Hartwell, who is one of the best run-stopping middle linebackers in the league. Hartwell will combine with Pro Bowler Keith Brooking and Demorrio Williams, who was a fourth-round pick last year. While stopping the run may no longer be an issue, defending the pass still remains a concern. It largely depends on the maturation of second-year player DeAngelo Hall, the Falcons' first-round selection in 2004. The other corner, Jason Webster, is adequate, but Atlanta lacks any sort of depth at cornerback. Safeties Bryan Scott and Keion Carpenter are solid starters, but neither is anything spectacular.
Schedule and Intangibles: Atlanta had the worst punter in the NFL, Chris Mohr, which is why they signed former Jet Toby Gowin. Other than that, the Falcons had superb special teams in 2004. Allen Rossum is a dynamic punt and kick returner... Atlanta is confronted with a schedule of medium difficulty. They have tough non-divisional opponents like Philadelphia, New England, Minnesota and the New York Jets. But, they also play the likes of Buffalo, Miami and Green Bay.

Analysis: Michael Vick should be able to get his team into the playoffs again, but the absence of talent around him will be the reason the Falcons lose in the postseason.

Projection: 10-6 (2nd in the NFC South).

New Orleans Saints (Last Year: 8-8).
Major Additions:
QB Adrian McPherson, RB Antowain Smith, WR Az Hakim, TE Shad Meier, OT Jammal Brown, G Jermane Mayberry, CB Jimmy Williams, S Dwight Smith, S Josh Bullocks.
Major Subtractions:
WR Jerome Pathon, OT Victor Riley, OLB Derrick Rodgers, MLB Darrin Smith, CB Ashley Ambrose, S Tebucky Jones.

Offense This Year: The Saints arguably have the most talent on offense in the NFC. Aaron Brooks perennially receives many Pro Bowl votes, Deuce McAllister is one of the premier running backs in the NFL, the flamboyant Joe Horn nearly had 1,400 receiving yards last season and the offensive line is comprised of some excellent players. All of this must translate into a scoring unit that can put up 27 points on any given Sunday, right? Wrong. The Saints have been known to score 27 or more points -- they did so on six occasions last season. However, the offense flounders more than it should. New Orleans scored 17 or fewer points five times in 2004. Blame can be assessed to the inconsistent Aaron Brooks, who can be brilliant one week and awful the next. Donte' Stallworth, the No. 2 receiver, must also step up and become a lethal target for Brooks. The skilled third-year receiver accumulated just 767 yards last year. One potential problem the Saints could encounter this year is its aging offensive line. Three linemen -- Wayne Gandy, Kendyl Jacox and Jermane Mayberry -- are all over the age of 31. Gandy is 34. Another concern is rookie right tackle Jammal Brown. How will the rookie respond when asked to block Julius Peppers and Simeon Rice? Brooks will definitely find out.
Defense This Year: New Orleans was ranked 24th against the run last year, yielding 4.6 yards per carry to the opposition. The reason? They have a giant void of talent at the defensive tackle position. Brian Young is the epitome of mediocre, and Howard Green should not be starting in this league. Johnathan Sullivan, the Saints' first-round pick in 2003, is currently the No. 5 defensive tackle on the depth chart. While the Saints will continue to struggle against opposing ground games, they should be better against the pass in 2005. The defensive ends showcased their ability to harass the opposing quarterback, as the top three on the depth chart -- Charles Grant, Darren Howard and Will Smith -- combined for 29 of the team's 37 sacks. The monstrous pass rush makes things easier for their secondary. Mike McKenzie, who is close to being a shutdown corner, is the best defensive back the Saints possess. The other corner, Fakhir Brown, is young and has shown a lot of promise. The safeties -- Dwight Smith and Jay Bellamy -- are better than adequate, although one of them may soon be replaced by second-round rookie Josh Bullocks. The starting linebacking unit that Jim Haslett will probably start the season off with will be comprised of James Allen, Courtney Watson and Derrick Rodgers. Watson, a second-year player, is clearly the bright spot of that group. Allen is young and struggles against the pass, while Rodgers, 33, has lost a step.
Schedule and Intangibles: The Louisiana Superdome has not been a kind home for the Saints. Their 47-57 home record since 1992 is downright abysmal... Fortunately for New Orleans, they have finally shed their habit of losing in December. They were 2-9 in December games from 2001-2003, but the Saints were 4-1 last season. However, it must be pointed out that four of those five contests were against teams with losing records, and the one team that had a winning record -- the Atlanta Falcons -- started Matt Schaub instead of Michael Vick... Speaking of Vick, Brooks' cousin, the Saints have yet to defeat Atlanta with him in the lineup... Another thing New Orleans has to overcome is their inconsistency. Brooks has to step up and play to his potential every Sunday... The Saints have stellar special teams, which feature the electric Michael Lewis. The former beer truck delivery man is one of the best punt and kick returners in the league... New Orleans has a bunch of winnable games outside of their division, including Buffalo, Green Bay, St. Louis, Miami, Chicago and Detroit.

Analysis: The Saints have the talent to be one of the best teams in the NFC. However, they have always had this talent and haven't done anything with it. The inconsistency and woeful run defense will continue, which could lead to the firing of Haslett at season's end.

Projection: 7-9 (3rd in the NFC South).

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last Year: 5-11).
Major Additions:
RB Cadillac Williams, WR Ike Hilliard, TE Anthony Becht, TE Alex Smith, G Dan Buenning, DT Chris Hovan, MLB Barett Ruud, CB Juran Bolden, S Donte Nicholson, K Matt Bryant.
Major Subtractions:
QB Brad Johnson, WR Joe Jurevicius, WR Tim Brown, WR Charles Lee, OT Jeff Hatch, G Cosey Coleman, G Matt O'Dwyer, TE Ken Dilger, TE Rickey Dudley, DT Chartric Darby, CB Mario Edwards, S Dwight Smith.

Offense This Year: Tampa Bay's offense looked stale and deceased during the early stages of the 2004 season. The Buccaneers averaged 12.3 points during the first four games. Yet, they scored an average of 21 points during the rest of the year. The difference? Brian Griese stepped in for Brad Johnson and revitalized this offense. In four games, Johnson threw 674 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions and maintained a rating of 79.5. Griese, who was run out of Denver and Miami, threw for 2,632 yards, 20 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and held a rating of 97.5. Griese is currently slated as the starter, but he has not yet won the job. He will receive competition from Chris Simms, a third-round pick in 2003. The signal caller who wins the job will be throwing to Michael Clayton, who had an outstanding rookie campaign in 2004. Clayton registered 80 receptions, 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. However, there isn't much around Clayton. The oft-injured Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard are second and third on the depth chart. The three receivers -- or just one if Galloway and Hilliard are on the injured list -- will be stretching the field for rookie Cadillac Williams, Tampa Bay's first-round selection in April. Williams will jolt the Buccaneers' rushing attack, which has lacked a legitimate running back since Warrick Dunn departed. Unfortunately for Williams, he will not have a good offensive line blocking for him. The men up front surrendered 44 sacks and assisted Buccaneers running backs to a pitiful 3.8 yards-per-carry average in 2004. The lone bright spot on the line is second-year Jeb Terry, who plays right guard. The rest of the line -- Derrick Deese, Matt Stinchcomb, John Wade and Kenyatta Walker -- are either old, undersized or sluggish. Rookies Chris Colmer and Dan Buenning may crack the starting lineup, but then again, they are just rookies.
Defense This Year: Stopping the pass has always been Tampa Bay's specialty on defense. The Buccaneers yielded just 2,579 passing yards last season because they have a monstrous pass rush, which registered 45 sacks last season, led by their top three defensive ends -- Simeon Rice, Greg Spires and Dewayne White. The three terrorized quarterbacks all year, combining for 26 sacks. Weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks might be the greatest reason why the Buccaneers have been stellar against the pass the past decade. Although Brooks is 32, he is still one of the best at his position. The same cannot be said about the other linebackers. Shelton Quarles is a decent player, but Jeff Gooch is past his prime and can no longer start in the NFL. The Buccaneers possess two young linebackers -- Barrett Ruud and Marquis Cooper -- who will eventually surpass Quarles and Gooch. Starting cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly are superb, but Tampa Bay lacks any sort of depth behind the two veterans. The safety position is a different story. The best of the bunch is free safety Will Allen, which isn't really saying much. Strong safety Jermaine Phillips is mediocre at best, and he may soon be replaced by either former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson or rookie Donte Nicholson. The minor holes on Tampa Bay's defense may be the reason they are frequently bulldozed by big running backs with speed, and consequently struggle against New Orleans and Carolina. Anthony McFarland is great defensive tackle, but his linemate Ellis Wyms is anything but. Gooch, Quarles and Phillips also struggle against the run.
Schedule and Intangibles: Torrie Cox and Galloway are respectively solid kickoff and punt returners, but can the latter stay healthy?... The Buccaneers replaced Martin Gramatica, who was 11 of 19 on field goal attempts, with Matt Bryant, who connecting on 11 of 14 attempts with the New York Giants in 2003... Tampa Bay is clearly on the rise after their post-Super Bowl debacle, but can they finally beat Carolina? The Panthers are 4-0 against the Bucs the previous two seasons... Tampa Bay has a last-place schedule, meaning they play weak, non-divisional foes like Buffalo, Green Bay, Miami, San Francisco and Washington.
Additional Reading: Jon Gruden could find himself on Monday Night Football in 2006.

Analysis: It's safe to say that the combined efforts of Tampa Bay's young offense and their veteran defense will not produce another 5-11 season. However, making the playoffs could be too much to ask.

Projection: 6-10 (4th in the NFC South).

2000 Season Preview
2001 Season Preview
2002 Season Preview
2003 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards

2004 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

2005 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

2006 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

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