NFC South football capsules
By Jude Power
PA SportsTicker Staff Writer
Biggest Changes: The Panthers, who reached the NFC championship game last season, fortified two positions: wide receiver and defensive tackle. Carolina signed veteran Keyshawn Johnson with the hope that he will alleviate the double teams on superstar receiver Steve Smith and give quarterback Jake Delhomme a reliable second passing option. On the other side of the ball, the Panthers lured free agent defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu away from Baltimore. The 350-pound Kemoeatu will occupy two blockers on most running plays, freeing up middle linebacker Dan Morgan to pursue the ball carrier with greater ease. In the secondary, they have to replace nickel back Ricky Manning Jr., who signed with Chicago.
Positives: Carolina is replete with quality talent on offense, defense and special teams. The offense is led by Smith, who led the league in catches (103), receiving touchdowns (15) and receiving yards (1,563). Delhomme is protected by a sturdy offensive line, led by tackle Jordan Gross. In the backfield, oft-injured DeShaun Foster will be backed up by DeAngelo Williams, a first-round pick with breakaway speed. As the season progresses, do not be surprised if Williams supplants Foster. The defense again figures to rank among the best in the NFL. Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins returns after missing most of last season. Julius Peppers is one of the league’s fastest ends and Mike Rucker can also get to the quarterback. The secondary is quick and tough with cornerbacks Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble. Coach John Fox is a superb defensive tactician and a master motivator.
Negatives: The strong safety spot is an area of concern. Carolina signed veteran Shaun Williams to replace Marlon McCree, who signed with San Diego. Rookie Richard Marshall, a second-round pick out of Fresno State, may replace Manning Jr. at nickel back. Relying on Thomas Howard and Keith Adams to replace departed starting outside linebackers Will Witherspoon and Brandon Short.
Prediction: Tough division and a difficult schedule, but the Panthers appear to be a Super Bowl team. Book them for 11 or 12 wins.
Tidbit: The Panthers still hold the single-season record for consecutive losses with 15 in 2001. Two years later, they reached the Super Bowl.
Biggest Changes: Last season, the Falcons ranked 22nd in defense. They made four major moves to correct this deficiency, acquiring sack specialist John Abraham and safety Chris Crocker, signing safety Lawyer Milloy and using their first pick in the draft on cornerback Jimmy Williams. Helped the offense by acquiring wide receiver Ashley Lelie.
Positives: The speed of quarterback Michael Vick and running back Warrick Dunn, the reliable hands of tight end Alge Crumpler and a stable of pass rushers headed by Abraham, Patrick Kerney and Rod Coleman. Keith Brooking is a superb cover linebacker and the addition of Lelie gives the Falcons more speed at the receiver position to pair with Roddy White and Michael Jenkins.
Negatives: Wide receiver Brian Finneran, a favorite target of Vick, suffered a season-ending injury in training camp. Vick is too reliant on Crumpler and Finneran. He needs to develop a rapport with White, Jenkins and Lelie. The trade of T.J. Duckett for Lelie leaves the Falcons without a power runner.
On the spot: Vick is entering his third season in the West Coast offense. Is this the year he becomes an accurate enough passer to lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl?
Prediction: A rejuvenated defense combined with the development of Vick and the young receivers could spell an 11-5 season.
Tidbit: The 2006 season is the Falcons’ 40th in the NFL. They have been to just one Super Bowl.
Biggest Changes: Unlike last season, Tampa Bay enters this season without a quarterback controversy. The job belongs to Chris Simms, who led the Bucs to the NFC South title last season after taking over for injured Brian Griese in the sixth game. No major offseason moves.
Positives: Tampa Bay retained the majority of its starters from last year’s No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL. The group is led by linebacker Derrick Brooks and pass-rushing end Simeon Rice. Tampa Bay still plays its trademark Cover 2 defense and boasts a terrific tandem of cornerbacks with Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly. Carnell “Cadillac” Williams led all rookies in rushing with 1,178 yards last season. Mike Alstott remains the short-yardage back. Joey Galloway is coming off the best season of his career, catching 83 passes for 1,287 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Negatives: The offensive line is an obvious weakness. In an effort to improve this group, the Bucs drafted guard Davin Joseph of Oklahoma in the first round and tackle Jeremy Trueblood of Boston College in the second round. Center John Wade struggled at times last season and the tackles - Anthony Davis and Kenyatta Walker - are mediocre. Torrie Cox struggled as a kick returner last year.
On the spot: Simms will now have the burden of meeting high expectations after his performance last season. Williams will also be expected to improve on his output from last season.
Prediction: The Buccaneers’ defense will allow them a chance to win most of their games. But Carolina and Atlanta improved, so look for the Bucs to finish third with a 9-7 record.
Tidbit: The Bucs still have not returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 29 years in the NFL.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Biggest Changes: The Saints finished next to last with 14.9 points per game. Quarterback Aaron Brooks was jettisoned and former offensive coordinator Sean Payton was hired to replace Jim Haslett as coach. Quarterback Drew Brees was signed and then magic happened for the Saints when Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush was passed over by Houston with the first pick in the draft. The Saints jumped on Bush and his arrival immediately fueled ticket sales.
Positives: For a change, there is a sense of optimism and excitement around the Saints these days. The offense is stacked with first-class talent - Brees, Bush, running back Deuce McAllister and wide receiver Joe Horn. Defensive end Will Smith showed plenty of promise with 8 1/2 sacks last season. Safety Josh Bullocks will move in as a starter at safety in just his second season. Mike McKenzie is a solid cornerback.
Negatives: The linebacker corps is inexperienced and slow. The Saints acquired linebacker Mark Simoneau, who was a backup in Philadelphia, for wide receiver Donte Stallworth, who led the Saints with 70 catches last season. The offensive line is an area of concern as Jeff Faine replaces Pro Bowler LeCharles Bentley at center. Right tackle Jon Stinchcomb is hampered by a sore right knee after offseason surgery. Zach Strief was used at right tackle in training camp. Guards Montrae Holland and Jermane Mayberry are also nursing injuries.
On the spot: Bush enjoyed a remarkable college career at Southern California, winning two national titles and a Heisman Trophy. Payton will line him up in the backfield and in the slot to exploit his speed. Many consider him to be a combination of Marshall Faulk and Barry Sanders.
Prediction: The Saints will be exciting, but should struggle to win more than six games in this rugged division.
Tidbit: Only three former Saints players are in the Hall of Fame - Jim Taylor, Doug Atkins and Earl Campbell - and none played more than three seasons in New Orleans.