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NFC camp answers

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I don't need big concerts, pyrotechnics and two-hour pregame shows. Just fire the little cap gun and kick the ball off. Ok, I'll admit, Jessica Simpson and Destiny's Child offer something to the party.

After spending countless hours pouring through camp reports, driving all over the Northeast to witness practices in person and watching more minutes of preseason football than anyone this side of Phil Steele, I'm ready to get it started. We've got a number of big matchups out of the gate, from Thursday's game to Tennessee-Miami, Kansas City-Denver and Carolina-Green Bay.

My wife corrected my exclamation of "It's like Christmas morning" last night to remind me that I used that to describe draft day. My mind quickly shifted and I made a feeble attempt to reclaim my dignity by uttering "Thanksgiving then. It is Thursday, right?"

So anyway, I posed a number of questions to be answered by each NFC team as the preseason wore on. Let's revisit those issues and see what we've learned.

NFC EAST

Philadelphia Eagles
1. Terrell Owens is the story here. How long will the honeymoon period last, and will he push to the top of the fantasy wideouts?

I love this marriage and look for monster numbers out of Owens. I believe he'll make a run toward 1,500 yards and 20 TDs. If he gets any help from Todd Pinkston or Freddie Mitchell, he could be scary.

2. How much will the addition of Owens mean to the fantasy numbers of Donovan McNabb? He finally has that sure-fire No. 1 wide receiver and his own health. Is fantasy greatness ahead?

Book it. McNabb's struggles in 2003 were a function of receivers being unable to gain separation, leaving him a sitting duck. His decreased mobility tempers my excitement marginally, as you won't likely be seeing him take off downfield within a second of receiving the snap. With Owens in tow, though, he'll save those carries for QB sneaks on the goal line.

3. Besides Owens, who else will catch the ball other than Brian Westbrook and possibly Correll Buckhalter out of the backfield? Todd Pinkston, Freddie Mitchell and Billy McMullen are a lackluster bunch. One player to watch is second-year TE L.J. Smith.

Todd Pinkston remains a serviceable No. 2 for the Birds (not fantasy, mind you), but I firmly believe that this is the season that Freddie Mitchell finally gets it rolling. With Owens drawing double teams and the linebackers sneaking up to thwart Westbrook's activity, the speedy Mitchell will loom large. Also, L.J. Smith will be McNabb's hot read as teams test Donovan's mobility.

Dallas Cowboys
1. Welcome to big D and some big shoes to fill, Eddie George. How much of the load will George carry?

Right now Eddie George is the man, but his pathetic preseason has opened the door for rookie Julius Jones. Watch for George to see the bulk of carries in Week 1, but slowly yield to Jones before too long.

2. Antonio Bryant and Bill Parcells kissed and made up, a month after a highly publicized incident in which Bryant fired a jersey at Parcells. He has the physical goods to be a great third fantasy option, but how long will he stay out of The Tuna's doghouse?

Parcells assembled a veterans' committee in Dallas with the addition of Keyshawn Johnson to team up with Terry Glenn. Bryant still has big-play potential and will be an attractive option for Vinny's big right arm. He's a wait-and-see project.

3. The quarterback position continues to be the big question mark. Chad Hutchinson reportedly is on his way out the door. Drew Henson is holding a football for the first time in years, and Carter was uninspiring in 2003. The job is Carter's entering camp, but I'm thinking that the cagey veteran Vinny Testaverde is at the helm before long.

Well, what do you know? We are painfully aware of Carter's release and subsequent signing with the Jets. Hutchinson was released and Drew Henson is green with a big "potential" sign on his head. So, welcome aboard Vinny Testaverde. He's still got the arm and smarts to get the job done. If the line does its job, Vinny can serve as a viable fantasy backup.

Washington Redskins
1. Joe Gibbs returns to the Redskins after a decade in the pits of auto racing. How will his offensive philosophy play in today's NFL?

He received a great gift from Daniel Snyder with the acquisition of Clinton Portis. They'll still be able to move the ball and score points. Remember, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien dominated under his tutelage.

2. Mark Brunell basically received a year off behind Leftwich. Operating with Portis in the backfield and Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner at wide receiver, can he rediscover fantasy magic?

Brunell was mediocre at best during the preseason, but it's tough to tell how much of Gibbs' hand was being shown. With Coles and Gardner on the wings, he's got the horses. Brunell has fantasy spot-start potential when this offense starts clicking.

3. Who emerges at the No. 3 wide receiver position, the reacquired James Thrash or big-play possibilities Darnerien McCants and Taylor Jacobs?

Darnerien McCants will begin the season as the No. 3 option. He's a big, athletic receiver who knows how to find the end zone. Don't look to him for Week 1 against Tampa Bay, but he's a long-term No. 3 fantasy wide receiver option.

New York Giants
1. Kurt Warner or Eli Manning? The latest word in NY is that Warner starts the season as the starter, regardless of when Manning hits camp. What does Kurt have left in the tank?

Warner gets the nod for Coughlin's inaugural season in New York. If the offensive line is as bad as expected, Warner won't have an adequate chance to show what he can do. I watched near to a dozen practices in-person this preseason, and Warner still has the accuracy and zip he displayed with the Rams.

2. Ron Dayne, who sat on the pine during the entire 2003 season, is back in the mix for the Giants. How many touchdowns does he pilfer from Tiki Barber?

It's platoon city in New York. Dayne has dominated at tailback this preseason and will likely split time with Barber. He has failed on short-yardage carries a number of times, though, prompting the Giants to sign Mike Cloud as insurance.

3. Will Jeremy Shockey's foot respond to treatment and make him the fantasy monster we keep awaiting? (Yahoo! Sports owners believe; he's being drafted in the fifth round on average.)

Shockey has declared himself ready for battle. Not to harp on the o-line too much, but that's music to Kurt Warner's ears. With Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard taking care of business downfield, Thunder (Dayne) and Lightning (Barber) Redux and a healthy Shockey, the offense might just be able to operate after all.

NFC NORTH

Green Bay Packers
1. Can Brett Favre keep putting up monster numbers with a bad thumb? When does the ride end, and how well will Tim Couch fit into the Green Bay offense?

Exit Tim Couch, released after a miserable preseason. So, Doug Pederson, not to be confused with William Petersen or Scott Peterson, will serve as the backup. With Ahman Green in the prime of his career, tight end Bubba Franks and the trio of Javon Walker, Robert Ferguson and Donald Driver ready to go, Favre could push toward 30 passing TDs yet again.

2. Javon Walker scored nine touchdowns in 2003 and appears primed for a big season. Is Walker the monster third-year receiver for 2004?

Ferguson will be a big-play threat and Donald Driver is a reliable possession guy. But Walker is ready to dominate. Look for him to blow by 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns.

3. Ahman Green nearly doubled his TD output in the 2003 season. What does he do for an encore? And will Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher play a bigger role in short-yardage and goal-line situations to keep Green fresh for the stretch run?

Davenport and Tony Fisher will see more carries to keep Green fresh for the stretch run. However, Green's abilities as a receiver and the attention warranted by the receiving corps will keep Green above 15 TDs.

Minnesota Vikings
1. Marcus Robinson enters Minnesota as the No. 2 receiver opposite Randy Moss. He had only two big games in Baltimore in 2003 (including four TDs in Week 12). Can he translate that into a full season and recreate the magic of 1999?

Right now, my answer is no. He's hampered by hamstring injuries. He's a dominant No. 2 when on the field, but it's starting to look like a replay of his last years in Chicago.

2. Michael Bennett is healthy and Mike Tice says he will stay on the field in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Will fantasy owners need to count on long runs for his TD total because TD vulture Moe Williams (11 rushing TDs in 2002) waits in the wings?

Bennett is again on the pine. Unlike last year's mysterious foot ailment, at least this year it's clear that he's out awhile. Moe Williams will see the ball early and often for the first couple weeks. But don't forget about Onterrio Smith (suspension appeal pending), who figures to get his share of carries.

3. Who wins the No. 3 receiver job behind Robinson, Kelly Campbell or Nate Burleson?

Burleson elevates to the No. 2 behind Randy Moss with the injuries to Marcus Robinson. He's got good hands and will be the receiver of soft single coverage as teams stack up to "stop" Moss. Kelly Campbell is a solid No. 3 in this set. If you're in a deep league and are looking to gamble on long ball home run hitters, Campbell should suit your plans perfectly

Chicago Bears
1. Rex Grossman has been handed the starting gig, with career backup Jonathan Quinn and rookie Craig Krenzel behind him. Is Grossman ready, and is he a viable fantasy backup?

In short, no. He was awful in the preseason and has a ways to go before he's ready for prime time. With that said, since Craig Krenzel is the backup, he'll get to learn by fire.

2. Jones, a bust in Arizona who saw his career resurrected in Tampa Bay, becomes the man in Lovie Smith's new offense. The Bears pushed a pile of cash his way. Will he put up the eye-popping numbers for fantasy owners to earn it? And what if Anthony Thomas stays in the Windy City?

Thomas hasn't practiced in weeks, leaving Adrian Peterson as the backup. Jones will be the primary option via ground and air, so he's valuable if only in that he'll touch the ball 30 times per game. He's a solid No. 2 fantasy back. 3. In the spread offense that has been implemented in Chicago, is this the year that David Terrell steps up or is he cast aside for the athletic Justin Gage and rookie Berrian?

With the trade of Marty Booker, Justin Gage slides into the No. 2 role behind Bobby Wade and David Terrell assumes the No. 3 slot. He's got the tools to be a star and knows it's his final chance to shine in Chicago. Look for 600-700 yards and a handful of TDs.

Detroit Lions
1. Now in the second year of Steve Mariucci's offense, is Joey Harrington ready to bust out?

They gave him a shiny new RB in Kevin Jones and wideouts Roy Williams and San Francisco castoff Tai Streets. Look for Harrington to push toward 2,800 yards passing and 20 TDs. If you elect to play him, realize that the inevitable string of picks will occur at some point.

2. Rookie Kevin Jones has been handed the reins as the starting RB. If he isn't ready, does Artose Pinner inspire a fantasy selection?

Jones is ready to roll as a No. 1 back in the league and makes a solid No. 2 fantasy play. He's able to break off the long run and can catch the ball on the swing pass. Artose Pinner is capable of stepping in if Jones falters and should be occupying your final bench slot if you selected Jones.

3. Charles Rogers was off to a solid start (five games, 22 catches) prior to an injury that shelved him for the year. With the additions of Roy Williams and Tai Streets, does he ascend to the top of the fantasy charts in 2004?

Charles Rogers will be a double-digit TD receiver in 2004. Streets and Williams will command attention, leaving Rogers to face less double teams. He'll easily surpass the 1,000-yard mark.

NFC SOUTH

Carolina Panthers
1. DeShaun Foster starred down the stretch and posted a lofty 4.7 yards per carry in the postseason. Does he share the workload in Carolina or will fumble-itis get him shipped to Miami?

You need not worry about that trade any longer, but that doesn't mean he'll be receiving many looks in Carolina. He's still having issues holding onto the ball and Stephen Davis wants to blow last year's totals away. Watch for a 20/10 Davis to Foster work split to start the season.

2. John Fox and staff are impressed with the work ethic and speed of Colbert, the rookie wideout from USC. Colbert offers a speed element to complement emerging star Steve Smith, nine-year veteran Muhsin Muhammad and the hands of Ricky Proehl. What role does he take early on?

Living in the shadow of USC's Mike Williams the past couple seasons, I was very excited to see Colbert bust off a couple huge plays in the preseason. This guy wears the rookie sleeper banner for me, with end zone possibilities on every catch. Look for him to catch 40 balls for 600 yards and five touchdowns this season.

3. Jake Delhomme was a winning QB in 2003 – but a mediocre fantasy QB. With a year under his belt, the contrasting styles of Davis and Foster and a solid receiving corps, does Delhomme take the next step to fantasy starter (he currently is the 18th QB selected on average).

Delhomme has been gaining steam in fantasy drafts as the preseason wound down. He's a top fantasy backup now with occasional situational starts on the docket. Watch for him to push toward 25 TDs.

New Orleans Saints
1. Will Donte' Stallworth overcome his hamstring issues and the dropsies to become an elite receiver in 2004?

I am officially on the Stallworth bandwagon. I loved him as a rookie in 2002, suffered through the injuries with him in 2003 and now await his triumphant return in 2004. Ok, that was a bit dramatic, but I do believe in this guy's talent. Barring a relapse from Aaron Brooks from his 2003 breakout season, I expect double-digit TDs from Stallworth, with no cell phone antics to be found.

2. Can Devery Henderson emerge as a solid third option for Aaron Brooks and make his way onto fantasy lineups this year?

Henderson is a guy with home run potential, and for a short time appeared as a threat to my top guy Stallworth opposite Joe Horn. He still stands as a home run threat for the Saints, but will not factor in just yet.

3. Aaron Brooks finally cut down on turnovers and made better decisions in 2003. Does his maturation process continue to make him a legitimate top-10 fantasy QB, or does he regress this season?

I believe that the TD-to-INT ratio will come back to earth for Brooks, but he's clearly developed as a solid QB play. He'll throw for 25 TDs and add several more on the ground.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1. Jon Gruden is gushing about rookie wideout Michael Clayton. How big a play will the Bucs make to bring Keenan McCardell into camp?

McCardell is sitting around watching PlayStation and will not be breaking bread with Jon Gruden anytime soon. Tim Brown and Joey Galloway are the safe options with Clayton as the home run threat. Watch for Gruden to get the rookie involved early against Washington.

2. What will the offense look like if McCardell doesn't come to camp and Joe Jurevicius' knee isn't ready?

There's a lot of questions on offense. The line is tattered, the receiving corps has been shuttling players in and out weekly and the backfield is looking healthy. With Brad Johnson running the ship, they'll still be potent.

3. How will Mike Alstott recover from last year's injury, and is he still a solid fantasy option to bull his way toward a double-digit touchdown total?

Gruden will reward the human battering ram every time they hit the red zone. He's not as likely to see carries between the 20s anymore, but he remains a solid play in TD-heavy leagues.

Atlanta Falcons
1. Michael Vick returns to a new offensive scheme under Jim Mora. How long will he stay in the pocket before he takes off running?

After attempting only 12 passes in the preseason, there's still a lot of questions about Vick's readiness with the new scheme. Given his pedigree, it's hard to argue that Mora is playing games and not showing his hand. "What, playoffs?" "Playoffs!" Just kidding. I'm nervous for Vick owners, particularly those who went all-in in the second or third round to nab him.

2. Warrick Dunn's foot reportedly is healthy and ready for camp. How will Jim Mora handle the dual-back situation with T.J. Duckett?

It's simple, or so it would seem. Run Dunn between the 20s and for an occasional long run and Duckett to punish the opposition and do touchdown dances. Duckett gets back to double-digit rushing TDs before this one ends, as they'll need to establish the run in the early games as Vick acclimates to playing more than three downs.

3. Peerless Price had a down year in Michael Vick's absence. He will be back, but who will emerge as the second and third options between Brian Finneran, Dez White and rookie Michael Jenkins?

Finneran is a reliable route runner who will thrive in this system. Jenkins will be a home run threat and decoy, but his inconsistency will keep him off of the field early in the season. Dez White is a solid possession receiver and warrants consideration in leagues rewarding points for receptions.

NFC WEST

St. Louis Rams
1. For all the hype, Marc Bulger managed just 22 touchdowns in the 2003 season. The show clearly is his with Kurt Warner off to New York. Is he ready to step up consistently for fantasy owners?

He's still going to throw wobbly balls and more than his fair share of picks, but he'll throw TDs too. He could make a run to 30 TDs, particularly if Dane Looker and Shaun McDonald contribute early on.

2. How long does the battle-worn Marshall Faulk fend off Steven Jackson for the starting job?

Marshall Faulk still has the quickness and elusiveness to dominate in the NFL. Playing four games against San Francisco and Arizona won't hurt. Steven Jackson, the leading rusher in the preseason, will see some action to whet his appetite for the show, but it's still Marshall's game.

3. Torry Holt is a monster and Isaac Bruce narrowly missed the 1,000-yard mark in 2003. Who is No. 3 in St. Louis? Does Dane Looker outshine Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald?

I love the speed of Shaun McDonald. If the makeshift offensive line can keep Bulger upright and backup Chris Chandler off of the field, he might emerge as the next headliner for "The Greatest Show on Turf."

Seattle Seahawks
1. Matt Hasselbeck struggled down the stretch. Entering 2004 with high expectations, is he ready to step to the next level?

MVP and Super Bowl are words swirling throughout Seattle. Hasselbeck has the goods to live up to the hype, and I'm guessing that Koren Robinson and Darrell Jackson won't drop nearly as many balls as they did in 2003. Hasselbeck becomes another member of the 30 TD club this season.

2. How will Koren Robinson respond from a disappointing 2003 campaign that had him tabbed as the breakout star?

He spent the entire offseason hearing about how big a bust he was. And that was away from fantasy owners. Robinson is in better shape and focused to put 2003 behind him. Watch for him to make a run at 100 receptions, 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns this season.

3. Who wins the TE job, Itula Mili or the much-maligned Jerramy Stevens?

Stevens finally decided to focus and get truly ready for a season. He's the No. 1 guy and has looked tremendous throughout camp. He's ready to ascend to the upper tier of tight ends.

San Francisco 49ers
1. Will Tim Rattay be ready to go for the preseason? If he's not, will second-year QB Ken Dorsey be ready to lead the offense?

Rattay will be ready for the opener, commanding a young receiving corps. Coach Dennis Erickson will open it up this season and let the youngsters make plays. Rattay is waiver wire fodder until the 49ers shows something.

2. Kevan Barlow stands tall in SF, armed with a new monster contract. Will he be an elite fantasy back in this young offense?

Barlow makes for a great No. 2 fantasy back. With a number of questions surrounding Rattay's health and the skills of the receiving corps, it's all Barlow and tight end Eric Johnson.

3. Cedrick Wilson is the leading returning receiver (35 catches in 2003). Are Rashaun Woods, Brandon Lloyd or Wilson worth a third receiver position on your squad?

If you just like seeing guys on the highlight reel, then Brandon Lloyd can serve as your No. 3 receiver. I can't endorse any of the 49ers corps at this point, but I've got both Lloyd and Woods on my watch list to see how often Rattay targets them.

Arizona Cardinals
1. Will the addition of Larry Fitzgerald propel Anquan Boldin to even greater heights in 2004?

Clearly, this question was posed before Boldin's injury. With that said, once both are on the field in the second half of the season, it should be fun to watch. Boldin is a great flier in the late rounds of your draft.

2. Is Josh McCown ready to be a No. 1 QB, and should he be atop your list of fantasy sleepers at the position?

McCown was a rising sleeper before a rash of injuries hit the Cardinals' receivers. Anquan Boldin is out for half the season, Bryant Johnson can't stay healthy and Fitzgerald is battling an ankle injury. Right now, McCown looks like backup fodder with a hold rating pending the return of Boldin.

3. How long before Emmitt Smith is displaced by Marcel Shipp?

Marcell Shipp is on injured reserve, so he's not a threat. But the recent trade for Troy Hambrick and the signing of Aveion Cason reveal that Dennis Green isn't convinced that the venerable Smith will last a full season. Unless the receiving corps gets healthy in a hurry, the Cardinals will need to run the ball 25 times a game, and Smith's body is not likely to be up for the pounding. Look for Hambrick to steal eight-10 carries a game to start and for Cason to set up on third down.

With the resolution of these issues, certainly other hot spots were uncovered due to injuries, holdouts and position battles. I'll be watching every game intently to unearth the next diamond in the rough.

Here's hoping for shootouts around the league, except for those teams whose quarterbacks I'm facing this week of course. Good luck.

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