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NFC South Capsules

By United Press International   |   Sept. 3, 2002 at 6:07 PM
Capsule summaries from the NFC South:

Atlanta Falcons

Coach: Dan Reeves might have his best team since the 1998 Super Bowl team. With new Arthur Blank and the hiring of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Falcons should be a fun team to watch.

2001 Season: Tied for third-place in the NFC West with a 7-9 record.

Major adds: RB Warrick Dunn, WR Willie Jackson, DE John Thierry.

Major losses: QB Chris Chandler, WR Terrance Mathis, RB Jamal Anderson.

Quarterback: Michael Vick is the leader of this team. Vick was the second leading rusher on the team with 305 yards and is the league's fastest quarterback.

Running backs: Warrick Dunn will give the team a different dimension while first round draft pick T.J. Duckett will be a valuable addition. Maurice Smith led the team last year with 770 yards and five touchdowns. Bob Christian is the starter at fullback.

Receivers: With the addition of Willie Jackson, the team will have a good mix of veteran and young receivers. Shawn Jefferson will be expected to put up more than the two touchdown passes he caught last year. Jackson caught 81 passes for 1,046 yards and five touchdowns for New Orleans. Brian Finneran is a favorite of Reeves.

Offensive line: Bob Whitfield remains one of the best tackles in the league. Todd Weiner was signed as a free agent to take over at right tackle. Roberto Garza impressed in the preseason and will start at center.

Defensive line: Pro Bowl end Patrick Kerney will be expected to duplicate last season's total of 12 sacks. Travis Hall will be the other end while Ed Jasper starts at nose tackle in the three man front. Recently signed former Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Ellis Johnson.

Linebackers: Rookie Will Overstreet was supposed to be the starter at weak side linebacker, but injured his shoulder in the preseason. Keith Brooking is one of the league's top young defensive players. Mark Simoneau, Chris Draft and Matt Stewart will also have prominent roles at linebacker in the 3-4.

Secondary: Ashley Ambrose and Ray Buchanan give the Falcons one of the league's top corner tandems. Unfortunately, they received awful play at the safety positions last year. Gerald McBurrows and former Redskin Keith Lyle will start at the safety spots this year.

Special teams: Kicker Jay Feeley converted 29-of-37 field goals. Chris Mohr is the punter. Allen Rossum is expected to return punts while Darrick Vaughn will run back kickoffs.

Prediction: Exciting offense with Vick and Dunn and power with Duckett. The Falcons could be the surprise team, especially since they don't play St. Louis and San Francisco twice a year. Can win at least eight games.


Carolina Panthers

Coach: John Fox takes over the reins after serving as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. Fox hired Dan Henning as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Unfortunately, Henning doesn't have much to work with.

2001 Season: Last place in the NFC West with a 1-15 record and a single-season record 15 consecutive losses.

Major adds: QB Rodney Peete, RB Lamar Smith, DT Shane Burton, DE Julius Peppers (first round pick).

Major losses: RB Tim Biakabutuka, WR Donald Hayes, RB Richard Huntley, CB Doug Evans.

Quarterback: Chris Weinke threw for 2,931 yards and 11 touchdowns, but threw 19 interceptions last season as a rookie. Fox was not impressed with Weinke in the preseason, naming veteran Rodney Peete as the starter.

Running backs: Lamar Smith was signed from Miami after the Panthers released Tim Biakabutuka. Drafted DeShaun Foster in the second round and he scored a touchdown on his preseason carry. But a knee injury will sideline Foster for the first few weeks of the season.

Receivers: Muhsin Muhammad only played 11 games last season and caught 50 passes for 585 yards and one touchdown. Muhammad needs to stay healthy for this offense to have a chance. Pro Bowl tight end Wesley Walls caught 43 passes for 452 yards and a team leading five touchdowns.

Offensive line: Veterans Todd Steussie, Kevin Donnalley and Jeff Mitchell improved the line drastically last season. Jamar Nesbit won the right guard spot from Leander Jordan.

Defensive line: Julius Peppers, the second overall pick in the draft, will be counted on to provide an immediate pass rush. At right end, Mike Rucker had nine sacks last year. Signed Shane Burton to play inside with Sean Gilbert.

Linebackers: Fox immediately moved Dan Morgan, the team's first-round pick in 2000, to the middle. Veteran Mark Fields and Hannibal Navies will man the outside spots. Third-round pick Will Witherspoon will be groomed for one of the outside spots.

Secondary: Losing cornerback Doug Evans and his eight interceptions will hurt. Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard form what may be the worst tandem of cornerbacks in the league. Solid at the safety spots with Mike Minter and Deon Grant.

Special teams: John Kasay is one of the most consistent kickers in the league, converting 23-of-28 field goals last season. Pro Bowl punter Todd Sauerbrun will be using his leg a lot. Pro Bowl special teams player Steve Smith scored three touchdowns on returns last season.

Prediction: Fox will be hard-pressed to squeeze four wins out of this team.


New Orleans Saints

Coach: Jim Haslett was coming into the final year of his three-year contract when it was extended four years on Aug. 7. Led the team to a division title two years ago, but the Saints faltered down the stretch last year.

2001 Season: Tied for third-place in the NFC West with a 7-9 record.

Major adds: LB Bryan Cox, WR Jerome Pathon.

Major losses: RB Ricky Williams, DT La'Roi Glover, LT William Roaf, DE Joe Johnson, WR Willie Jackson.

Quarterback: Aaron Brooks will be the starter but he would like to be paid like a starter. His contract calls for the fourth year minimum of $450,000 which he is in the process of renegotiating. His numbers justify the raise -- 3,832 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. He must eliminate the hurried throws that caused him to throw 22 interceptions. Free agent Jeff Lewis will battle Jake Delhomme for the back up spot.

Running backs: The loss of Ricky Williams leaves a big hole in the running game. Second year running back Deuce McAllister will be asked to take the load Williams left behind.

Receivers: Joe Horn is a Pro Bowler and the Saints hope Jerome Pathon emerges in 2002. Selected speed receiver Donte' Stallworth in the first round, but he has been bothered by hamstring problems in the preseason. Horn caught 83 passes for 1,265 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

Offensive line: Lost Willie Roaf, but Kyle Turley will move from the right side to the left. Victor Riley was signed as a free agent to play right tackle. Very high on second-round pick LeCharles Bentley, who can play guard and center.

Defensive line: Lost La'Roi Glover and Joe Johnson from one of the NFL's premier lines. Signed tackle Grady Jackson as a free agent from Oakland to pair with Norman Hand inside. Darren Howard replaces Johnson at right end and selected end Charles Grant in the first round.

Linebackers: Middle linebacker Charlie Clemons had 13 1/2 sacks last season. Second-year player Sedrick Hodge replaces Keith Mitchell on the outside, Darrin Smith will also likely start outside with veteran Bryan Cox the top backup.

Secondary: Brought in veteran Dale Carter to serve as a shutdown corner, but he is suspended for the year. Fred Thomas will start at one corner spot and the Saints are counting on rookie Keyuo Craver to develop quickly. Strong safety Sammy Knight is a Pro Bowler.

Special teams: One of the best kickers in the NFL, John Carney converted 27 of 31 field goals. Toby Gowin is the punter. Kick returner Fred McAfee is regarded as one of the best special teams players in the league.

Prediction: If McAllister carries the load, the Saints will contend for a wild card spot.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Coach: Jon Gruden takes over for the embattled Tony Dungy. Gruden brings his aggressive offensive philosophy to a team that has made the playoffs in the past on the strength of its defense.

2001 Season: Third place in the NFC Central with a 9-7 record. Lost to Philadelphia in the wild card round.

Major adds: QB Rob Johnson, RB Michael Pittman, T Lomas Brown, WR Keenan McCardell.

Major losses: RB Warrick Dunn, G Randall McDaniel, LB Jamie Duncan.

Quarterback: Brad Johnson is the starter and Rob Johnson was signed to provide competition. Gruden has taken a liking to third string Shaun King. Brad Johnson threw for 3,406 yards last season.

Running backs: Gruden signed Michael Pittman for his ability to run and catch passes. Mike Alstott rushed for only 680 yards last season, but had 10 touchdowns. It was time to break up Warrick Dunn-Alstott combo after the team ranked 30th in the league in rushing last year.

Receivers: Keyshawn Johnson is the go-to-guy. Last year, Keyshawn Johnson caught 106 passes for 1,266 yards but one touchdown. This year, he will get in the end zone more with Gruden running the offense. Keenan McCardell was signed as a free agent to pair with Keyshawn. Also signed tall receiver Joe Jurevicius and tight ends Ken Dilger and Marco Battaglia.

Offensive line: The offseason additions of tackles Lomas Brown and Roman Oben give new offensive line coach Bill Muir options. Oben will be the starter as the team released Jerry Wunsch. Kenyatta Walker will start at right tackle. Center Jeff Christy is the anchor of the offensive line.

Defensive line: Pro Bowler Warren Sapp will be under the microscope after his critical comments of New York Giants end Michael Strahan. Sapp only had seven sacks and 37 tackles last season so he will be highly motivated to do more. End Simeon Rice led the team with 11 sacks and was better than expected against the run. However, defensive end Marcus Jones is out for the year with a torn knee ligament.

Linebackers: Perennial Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks is back for his seventh season. His 113 tackles, 80 solo, led the Buccaneer defense. With the departure of Jamie Duncan, Shelton Quarles or Nate Webster will be given the opportunity at middle linebacker. If Webster wins the job, Quarles will platoon with Al Singleton on the strong side.

Secondary: John Lynch was told to hold back on contact in training camp in order to limit injury to his shoulder. He will let loose in the regular season. Lynch made 87 tackles last year. Cornerback Ronde Barber led the team with 10 interceptions last season.

Special teams: Kicker Martin Gramatica is almost automatica. Gramatica converted 23 of 28 field goals. Punter Mark Royals signed with the Dolphins while the Buccaneers signed Tom Tupa. Karl Williams will return kickoffs and punts.

Prediction: The Buccaneers should win the NFC South. With Gruden running the ship, the Super Bowl is expected.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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