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NFC South: Deuce coupe

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This week, I continue my tour around the NFL divisions with a look at the NFC South, where Atlanta looks to become a more-rounded team and make Michael Vick a bona-fide passing QB. The Panthers say goodbye to 2004's leading receiver, Muhsin Muhammad, but welcome back 2003 breakout star Steve Smith. In New Orleans, the coach remains on the hot seat and the offensive burden is placed squarely on the shoulders and healed ankle of Deuce McAllister. Finally, after shelling out big bucks to get involved in soccer, Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer wants to see some return from his U.S. football investment. Jon Gruden and company have re-tooled the offense and will look for one last run from their veteran defense.

Here's a glimpse at the fantasy landscape in the NFC South.

ATLANTA FALCONS
The running game and a bend-but-don't-break defense carried the Falcons to the NFC title game in 2004. This year, Jim Mora hopes that the addition of WR Roddy White and improvement from Michael Jenkins will help the passing game carry its share of the load.

Running Game
The top-ranking rushing team in the NFL churns like a well-oiled machine. Vick scampered for 902 yards a season ago, and the combination of Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett (1,615 combined rushing yards with 17 touchdowns) gave opposing defenses fits. The Falcons worked this offseason to achieve offensive balance by improving the passing game, but make no mistake about it, Dunn and Duckett (23 carries per game combined in 2004) will still be counted on heavily in Jim Mora's offense.

Passing Game
Every year, we're besieged by reports of how Vick will take that quantum leap forward in the passing game and climb to the top of the mountain among the league's greats. Fantasy owners who've selected Vick in the past are still waiting. There's no question that his legs and escapability are the things for which highlight shows were created. However, the tapes of how deep and accurate he can throw the ball are also things of legend. For the past several seasons, the emphasis in the passing game has been dump-offs to Dunn out of the backfield and a steady diet of TE Alge Crumpler. The Falcons are hopeful to change that this year. The offensive line returns four starters, where building continuity should dramatically reduce the number of sacks Vick took last year. Peerless Price will be challenged to hold down a job by up and coming youngsters Jenkins and rookie Roddy White. Veteran receivers Dez White and Brian Finneran will also be in the mix.

Fantasy Power List

  • Michael Vick (fourth round): Vick just turned 25 and fantasy owners are still confident that he's got the goods to be a fantasy monster. He's currently the eighth QB coming off of the draft board, bolstered by the positive offseason comments on Michael Jenkins and Roddy White (late-round flier here). The Falcons defense will provide short field situations and the running game will power the ball down opponents' throats. Vick's got new targets and here's hoping that he uses them.
  • Alge Crumpler (fourth round): Crumpler tallied 80 or more receiving yards on five occasions last season with two games above 100. Additional weapons in the passing game will only give him more room to operate.
  • T.J. Duckett (fifth round): The bruising part of the backfield combo is getting the nod over his tag team partner due to his abilities in goal-line situations. The Falcons are talking about getting him more reps (only five games with double-digit carries in '04) and involving him in the passing game as well. Of course, this high pick also suggests that fantasy owners are expecting a breakdown from Warrick Dunn this season.
  • Peerless Price (seventh round): There was some speculation that Price would be cut before June 1. That obviously didn't happen, but he'll need to show something this summer to stay ahead of the Whites and Jenkins. He has been a bust since coming to Atlanta from Buffalo after a tremendous season in 2002 (94 receptions, 1,252 yards and nine TDs) when he was the No. 2 receiver behind Eric Moulds. To be fair, there hasn't been much help in the receiving corps aside from Crumpler. Right now, a seventh-round stab at Price seems a bit early.
  • Warrick Dunn (eighth round): The ability to nab Dunn in the eighth round early this draft season is, to say the least, confusing. It's particularly baffling because Dunn is coming off his first 1,000-yard season since 2000 and scored the most rushing touchdowns of his career. Sure, the possibility of a platoon with Duckett makes him slide somewhat, but that's a tremendous insurance card for your starting backs to be had so late.

Wild Card
Michael Jenkins: All reports on the second-year receiver from Ohio State are good coming out of mini-camps. He's added 15-20 pounds to his frame and spent extensive time this offseason working with Vick. He was virtually invisible during his rookie season (7 receptions, 119 yards), but will be counted on to become the team's No. 1 receiver. At 6-foot-4, he's got the height to victimize opposing DBs if the offensive line can buy Vick time without activating the scrambling instinct.

CAROLINA PANTHERS
The Panthers hope that they can put the injury-plagued ugliness of 2004 behind them. Despite the piles of injuries, they still managed to make a late-season playoff push. Jake Delhomme continues to gain confidence under center and will pray for a healthy backfield and continuity on the offensive line. The defense is opportunistic and will provide Delhomme and company with opportunities. It forced 29 turnovers in the second half of last season.

Running Game
Can the Panthers' backs stay healthy? Last season, their top four options were sidelined by injury, leaving Nick Goings to assume the top spot by default. There are still questions as to whether Stephen Davis will be able to contribute and whether DeShaun Foster can make it through an entire campaign. The Panthers upgraded the offensive line by signing free agent G Mike Wahle away from Green Bay. As he's started every game since the beginning of the 2001 season, he'll be a fixture this season. In the second-half of the 2004 season, the run was all but abandoned for a steady dose of Jake Delhomme's right arm. The Panthers would like to get back to the power ground game.

Passing Game
Carolina must adapt to the loss of Delhomme's largest target, receiver Muhsin Muhammad, via free agency. However, they welcome back Steve Smith from injury and expect bigger things from Keary Colbert. Behind those receivers on the depth chart sit veteran Ricky Proehl and second-year receiver Drew Carter. It also added TE Freddie Jones, who has averaged just a shade fewer than 50 catches over the last three years.

Fantasy Power List

  • Steve Smith (fifth round): Smith returns after missing virtually the entire '04 season. In 2003, he showed great chemistry with Delhomme with 88 receptions, 1,110 receiving yards and seven scores.
  • DeShaun Foster (ninth round): Foster is an explosive runner when he can stay on the field, but has finished two of his first three NFL seasons on IR. He enters camp as the No. 1 option, making him a steal in the ninth round if there weren't four or five other backs nipping at his heels. I'm avoiding this situation.
  • Jake Delhomme (11th round): The Panthers were forced to throw the ball often due to the rash of injuries in the backfield, so any continuity in the ground game could reduce his opportunities. However, Delhomme did toss two or more touchdowns in 10 games (shut out only twice). The fact that Carolina did not select a single receiver among their 10 draft picks indicates that they're confident that they'll be able to continue their magic.
  • Keary Colbert (12th round): Colbert's tremendous rookie season got lost in the explosion of Muhammad and the continued talk of problems in the running game. He snagged 47 catches for 754 yards and five scores.
  • Eric Shelton (12th round): While the Panthers didn't address the receiving corps, they added to their running back depth with the second-round selection of Shelton. He's cut from the same mold as Stephen Davis and will start the season as the bruising complement to the speedy Foster. If you select one of the Carolina backs, you'll need to grab them all.

Wild Card
Stephen Davis: Davis has begun to run with his teammates after missing the majority of '04 and undergoing micro-fracture knee surgery. The Panthers will bring him along slowly in training camp and try to get him back in the fold for the end of training camp. His workload will be small to start the regular season, but if his knee proves sound, this former 1,400-yard rusher will most certainly get his share of carries.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
The late charge to get back to .500 saved Jim Haslet's job. The Saints return the majority of their starters on both sides of the ball (19 of 22) and added a couple pieces to shore up the defensive backfield (last in yardage allowed) and offensive line. The Saints will look to turn the tables on opponents by creating long, sustained drives of their own.

Running Game
The talk all offseason is that the Saints will push forward on the strength of Deuce McAllister's legs in 2005. The Saints signed guard Jermane Mayberry and drafted tackle Jamaal Brown in the first round. They're committed to improving on their 27th-ranked rushing production from 2004 that was affected tremendously by McAllister's severely sprained ankle.

Passing Game
Aaron Brooks is another quarterback that can be brilliant or frustrating on a weekly basis. The upgrades made to the offensive line will give Brooks time to set and, of course, he'll certainly benefit from a more effective running game. Joe Horn remains the top option and will be backed by Donte' Stallworth and the combination of Devery Henderson and Az-Zahir Hakim. The Saints will need more consistent play from Boo Williams, whose productivity fell off from a big '03 season.

Fantasy Power List

  • Deuce McAllister (mid-first round): Deuce was hampered by a sprained ankle and still topped 1,000 rushing yards with nine touchdowns. McAllister is fully recovered and will be the focal point of this offense. Fantasy owners are looking for a return to his 2002 form (1,700 combined yards and 16 TDs).
  • Joe Horn (third round): Horn has tallied 973 or more receiving yards for five straight seasons and has put up two straight with double-digit TDs. He reached career-high marks in receiving yards and touchdowns (1,399 and 11) and tied his career mark for receptions (94). Horn scored touchdowns in five of the final six weeks last season.
  • Donte' Stallworth (ninth round): Stallworth finally played an entire season in 2004. He caught 58 passes for 767 yards and five touchdowns. Stallworth made a nice third receiver for fantasy teams last year.
  • Aaron Brooks (11th round): Brooks has slipped a bit in drafts due to the continued talk of the focus on the running game. However, he's thrown 21 or more TDs for four straight seasons and threw at least one TD pass in 16 of 17 games last year. He's also thrown for at least 3,500 yards in each of his seasons as the starter in New Orleans.

Wild Card
Boo Williams: Williams was one of the highest drafted tight ends last year after a solid 2003 season. He was involved in the offense early in the season, but then didn't score a touchdown after Week 9. He caught only nine passes over the final six weeks and failed to top 25 receiving yards in any of those contests. If the offense shapes up as expected and the defense improves at all, Williams could be a big red-zone threat this year.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
With an aging defense and two losing seasons, the Buccaneers are looking to turn it around behind young offensive stars Carnell Williams and Michael Clayton. The team tied for ninth in the NFL last year at 19 points allowed per game. The biggest question mark for the team is whether the Bucs will gain some efficiency in the kicking game. Gruden singled out former kicker Martin Gramatica as the root of their evils in '04. That's not entirely true, but the exorcism of those demons in the clubhouse can't hurt.

Running Game
The Buccaneers decided to upgrade the running game after failing to produce a 1,000-yard rusher the past three seasons. They went for the luxury back in Cadillac Williams and drafted a couple linemen in the middle rounds. There are several backs behind Williams that are battling for third-down carries and backup scraps (Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham are the top options).

Passing Game
The young and inexperienced offensive line will need to raise its game to make the Buccaneers contenders and a fantasy star out of the passing attack. Michael Clayton will face double-team coverage and Joey Galloway needs to provide a solid No. 2 to take pressure off of him. The third receiver position is still up for grabs.

Fantasy Power List

  • Carnell Williams (fourth round): As I said in my mailbag column last week, I believe that the Cadillac will roll to a big year. The pressure is on Jon Gruden to turn things around this year, and he'll start that process with a sound running game. Additionally, there's no obvious vulture for goal-line carries on the squad right now. That's good news for those drafting Williams.
  • Michael Clayton (fifth round): Clayton had a huge year last season, hauling in 80 catches, 1,193 yards and seven scores. He'll be a focal point of opposing defensive coordinators and will need help from his fellow receivers and consistency from Griese to reach those heights again.
  • Brian Griese (ninth round): Griese ascended to the starting role after Brad Johnson failed to produce and Chris Simms got injured. Bucs fans may lament the late interceptions, but fantasy owners were happy to take his 11-game streak with at least one TD pass and seven multi-TD performances. If Williams shoulders the load and chews up ground, then the passing game should open up for Griese.
  • Michael Pittman (11th round): Pittman finally showed that he wasn't allergic to the end zone by scoring seven touchdowns in 2004. He also rushed for a career-high 926 yards. Gruden and the coaching staff have gushed about Williams' capabilities, meaning that Pittman will need to take whatever carries come his way. However, he proved last season to be a capable RB option in the event that Williams should be sidelined.
  • Joey Galloway (12th round): Griese missed six games last year with a groin pull, but returned to contribute a solid second-half of the season. Galloway caught five touchdowns over a four-game stretch, including the fantasy playoff race and fantasy playoffs. He's a long way from his hey day in Seattle, but still makes for a capable third fantasy receiver.

Wild Card
Brian Griese: He provided big thrills for fantasy owners last year with his seven multi-TD games. However, he's historically been a disaster when the No. 1 tag has been placed on him. With the receiving corps unsettled beyond Clayton and Galloway, a regression to his 15-TD, 15-INT season as the starter in Denver in 2002 is not out of the question.