Coach: Dave McGinnis guided the Cardinals to a four-game improvement in his first full season. But realignment does not favor the Cardinals, who must play St. Louis and San Francisco twice each. Offensive coordinator Rich Olson returns for a third season and is looking to build offensively around a power running game. Defensive coordinator Larry Marmie will look to get more out of a young group that ranked 28th in total defense.
2001 season: Finished fourth in NFC East with a 7-9 record.
Major adds: TE Freddie Jones, CB Duane Starks.
Major losses: CB Corey Chavous, CB Tom Knight, RB Michael Pittman.
Quarterback: Jake Plummer is coming off the first season in which he threw more touchdowns (18) than interceptions (14). He is at his best when throwing on the run. Plummer would benefit from an improved running game and could be motivated by the fact that he is in the final year of a four-year deal. McGinnis is still deciding between Chris Greisen and rookie Josh McCown as Plummer's backup.
Running backs: Arizona took a gamble by not re-signing Pittman and handing the starting job to third-year back Thomas Jones. Jones opened his first two seasons as the No. 1 back, but has been injured and when healthy has been unable to perform in the spotlight. Jones rushed for just 380 yards and the Cardinals had 1,149 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, which ranked 27th in the NFL. His backup is expected to be Marcel Shipp, who appeared in 11 games as an undrafted rookie. Joel Makovicka and Dennis McKinley are the blocking fullbacks.
Receivers: David Boston led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,598 last season. Entering his final year before free agency, the Cardinals are expecting even more improvement from Boston this season. Frank Sanders is a competent No. 2 wideout and MarTay Jenkins is still grasping the offense. Freddie Jones gives Arizona its best receiving threat in years at tight end. He had 35 receptions for 388 yards last season, while Arizona's tight ends totaled 19 catches and 159 yards.
Offensive line: Arizona has spent a majority of the last two seasons concentrating on upgrading the offensive line. Second-year guard Leonard Davis showed potential, but had trouble picking up stunts. Right tackle Anthony Clement is out for the season with a torn triceps tendon. A year ago, he was the only offensive lineman on the field for every offensive play. On the interior, center Mike Gruttadauria is coming off a solid season after neck surgery. Left tackle L.J. Shelton continues to struggle with lapses in concentration and may be replaced by backup guard Chris Dishman or Davis.
Defensive line: The Cardinals registered a league-low 19 sacks last season and lack a proven pass rusher. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch is coming off a season-ending knee injury and first-round pick Wendell Bryant remains unsigned. The Cardinals used a third and fourth round pick on defensive lineman. But the realistic hope is for Vanden Bosch to be fully recovered and Bryant to be signed as quickly as possible.
Linebackers: Veteran Rob Fredrickson hopes to remain healthy for an entire season. Nagging injuries over the end of the last two seasons have limited his production. In the middle, Ronald McKinnon is an undersized playmaker. Raynoch Thompson is the other outside linebacker, but at just 217 pounds, he could be pushed for the starting job with by second-round pick Levar Fisher.
Secondary: Signed cornerback Duane Starks, a starter with the Baltimore Ravens, to a five-year contract. Starks will even be called upon to shadow the opponent's top receiver. The other cornerback spot is manned by David Barrett, who is shaky at best. Free safety Kwame Lassiter was re-signed after intercepting nine passes last season and Adrian Wilson moves into the strong safety role, replacing Pat Tillman, who joined the military.
Special teams: Kicker Bill Gramatica is expected to be healthy for the season opener. He suffered a season-ending knee injury while celebrating a field goal in a December game. Punter Scott Player has emerged as one of the best in the league, while Arnold Jackson and MarTay Jenkins handle return duties.
Prediction: Had the Cardinals not switched divisions, a .500 record would not have been an unreasonable expectation. But they should win no more than six games.
St. Louis Rams
Coach: Mike Martz took the Rams to their second Super Bowl trip in three years, but they lost a heartbreaking, 20-17 contest to New England. Martz is a master offensive innovator and the choreographer of "The Greatest Show on Turf." Was rewarded with a four-year contract. Best move last year was hiring Lovie Smith to transform the defense. Smith favors Tony Dungy's "Cover 2" scheme
2001 Season: Won the NFC West with an 14-2 record. Beat Green Bay in the divisional playoff and Philadelphia in the NFC championship game. Lost to New England in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Major adds: P Mitch Berger, LB Jaime Duncan, WR Terrence Wilkins.
Quarterback: Even with a nagging thumb injury, Kurt Warner remains the best in the league. The injury limited his ability to throw the deep ball, but he still threw 36 touchdowns for 4,830 yards and had a 101.4 quarterback rating. Warner does need to reduce his interceptions. He threw 22 last season and has 40 over the last two years. Jaime Martin returns as the backup and Marc Bulger is expected to be the third string signal caller.
Running back: If his right knee holds up, Marshall Faulk could reach 2,000 total yards from scrimmage for the fifth consecutive season. Much of Martz's gameplan centers around Faulk's abilities as a runner and receiver. Trung Candidate emerged as a steady change-of-pace back, rushing for 441 yards. But Canidate annoyed Martz with his propensity to fumble. James Hodgins is a powerful blocker.
Receivers: The major change here is the arrival of Terrence Wilkins, who replaces speedster Az-Zahir Hakim. Wilkins' game is based on speed, but his playmaking ability remains unclear. Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt are probably the league's best receiving tandem, combining for 145 receptions, 2,469 yards and 13 touchdowns. Ricky Proehl continues to get better with age. At 33, Proehl is clutch in third-down situations when the defenses gear to cover Bruce and Holt. Tight end Ernie Conwell is coming off his best season.
Offensive line: Familiarity makes this unit strong. Left tackle Orlando Pace, left guard Tom Nutten, right guard Adam Timmerman and center Andy McCollum are solid. Pace may be the game's best tackle. Timmerman is coming off a Pro Bowl season and McCollum nearly made it. The only new starter is right tackle John St. Clair, who replaces salary cap casualty Ryan Tucker. However St. Clair has struggled in the preseason and the Rams could bring in a veteran tackle.
Defensive line: No team rotates its defensive lineman as much as St. Louis. Grant Wistrom and Leonard Little will see the majority of snaps at defensive end. Little had 14 1/2 sacks last season but that figure could be reduced with more double teams. At tackle, Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett will rotate behind starters Brian Young and Jeff Zgonina. Young emerged as a surprising playmaker, recording 6 1/2 sacks.
Linebackers: Gone are middle linebacker London Fletcher and outside linebacker Mark Fields. Jamie Duncan replaces Fletcher and should be better in coverage, mostly because of the three seasons he spent playing for Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay. Tommy Polley unseated Fields last year as a rookie. He has been switched from the weak side to the strong side. First-round pick Robert Thomas will probably share time with Don Davis on the strong side.
Secondary: Obtaining cornerback Aeneas Williams was the defensive equivalent of the Faulk trade. Williams helped the Rams cut down their touchdown passes allowed in half from 32 to 16. Cornerback Dexter McCleon was exploited in the Super Bowl and may be replaced by Dre' Bly, the team's nickel back. Strong safety Adam Archuleta is the secondary's hardest hitter and Smith compares him to Tampa Bay Pro Bowler John Lynch. Kim Herring is in his second season at free safety.
Special teams: Jeff Wilkins is one of the league's best after making 23 of 29 field goal attempts last season. The arrival of veteran Mitch Berger, who averaged 43.5 yards per punt despite back and neck injuries, is an upgrade. Wilkins is a solid kick returner.
Prediction: Despite one of the toughest schedules in the league, the Rams again expect to win 12-14 games and reach the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers
Coach: Steve Mariucci was courted by Notre Dame and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year, but stayed with the 49ers. Considered one of the game's most personable coaches, but had a rift with star receiver Terrell Owens last year. Visited with Owens in the offseason and the two settled their differences.
2001 season: Finished second in the NFC West with a 12-4 record. Lost to Green Bay in the wild card round.
Major adds: S Tony Parrish, G Ron Stone.
Major losses: G Ray Brown, S Lance Schulters.
Quarterback: Jeff Garcia has been among the most durable players in the league and has not missed a start in the last two seasons. Garcia threw for 3,538 yards and 32 touchdowns despite nursing rib and knee injuries. Garcia's ablity to to gain first downs with his mobility will be vital once again. Tim Rattay is more prepared as he enters his third season, but is still not
ready to lead this offense.
Running backs: The 49ers retained injury-plagued Garrison Hearst, who rushed for 1,206 yards, after missing the previous two seasons with an ankle fracture. He combined with Kevan Barlow to give San Franciso the NFC's top rushing offense at 140.3 yards per game. The 49ers were effective by rotating the duo, which kept defenses guessing. Both have good hands, a major aspect of the West Coast offense. Fullback Fred Beasley was resigned and the team is high on Terry Jackson, a backup fullback.
Receivers: Terrell Owens remains one of the best in the league and also one of the hardest workers in the league when it comes to blocking. The 49ers will attempt to get him as many passes as possible and that will work if J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets can complement him better. Stokes has been labeled as an underachiever while Streets' speed and his ability to make big catches make him an increased threat. Tight end is held down by Eric Johnson, last year's seventh-round pick, who started 15 games and was a major surprise.
Offensive line: Four starters from last year's unit are back. The new addition is guard Ron Stone, who replaces 39-year-old Ray Brown. Stone is a mammoth run blocker. In the middle is Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry. Right tackle Scott Gragg has been outstanding since joining the team in 2000. Right guard Dave Fiore and left tackle Derrick Deese are very versatile, having made starts at all three offensive line spots.
Defensive line: The unit is led by veterans Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield, who clog up the middle, and last year's first-round pick Andre Carter. Carter finished with 6 1/2 sacks, but at times the pass rush was lacking. Left end John Engelberger, who started 14 games last season, will miss the season opener with appendicitis.
Linebackers: This was the most improved defensive unit last season as outside linebacker Julian Peterson and inside linebacker Jeff Ulbrich moved into starting roles as second year players. The 49ers added Saleem Rasheed with a third-round pick this year and he can play either outside or inside and will be groomed for a starting spot. Derek Smith is the team's best tackler.
Secondary: Cornerback Ahmed Plummer looks like a future Pro Bowl corner and Jason Webster is gaining more confidence at the other corner spot. When opponents, especially the Rams, used three wideouts, the secondary was exposed. That led to the selection of cornerback Mike Rumph of Miami in the first round. Tony Parrish a four-year starter with Chicago, replaces Lance Schulters at strong safety. Free safety Zack Bronson had seven interceptions last season.
Special teams: Coverage units are a strong point, but the kicking job remains a battle between incumbent Jose Cortez and fourth-round pick Jeff Chandler. Jaime Baker remains the starting punter, while Vinny Sutherland gets another crack as the return specialist.
Prediction: Realignment means no more games against Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta, which were 0-6 against the 49ers last season. The defense started to flex its muscle late last season, pitching three shutouts in the last six regular season. Should win at least 10 games and earn a wild card berth.
Coach: Mike Holmgren is 24-25 with one postseason appearance in four years as Seahawks coach after leading Green Bay to back-to-back Super Bowls. He leads a team that is moving into a new stadium and back to the NFC for the first time since 1976. Defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell begins his fourth season and is looking to improve on a unit that ranked 20th in total defense last season.
2001 season: Second in the AFC West with a 9-7 record.
Major adds: CB Doug Evans, DE Brandon Mitchell, QB Mark Rypien.
Major losses: TE Christian Fauria, DE Michael Sinclair, RB Ricky Watters, OT Todd Weiner.
Quarterbacks: Matt Hasselback gets the starting nod for now because Trent Dilfer is out for the first two weeks of the season with a torn MCL in his right knee. Dilfer won all four starts last season, completing 73-of-122 passes for 1,014 yards and seven touchdowns and his effectiveness convinced Holmgren to re-sign him to a four-year, $18 million contract. While Dilfer is not as mobile as Hasselback, he does a better job of reading defenses. Mark Rypien signed a one-year deal shortly after Dilfer's injury.
Running backs: The team thought so much of Shaun Alexander that it elected to let Ricky Watters go. Alexander started 12 games, rushing for 1,318 yards and scoring a league-leading 14 rushing touchdowns. Alexander also finished with 44 receptions, but still needs work on his catching and blocking. Second-round pick rookie Maurice Morris is expected to be Alexander's backup. At fullback, Mack Strong returns as an effective blocker, who can take credit for Alexander's breakthrough season.
Receivers: Darrell Jackson had 70 catches for 1,081 yards and eight touchdowns in his second season. Koren Robinson should become a bigger part of the offense after just 39 catches last season. He excels at turning a short pass into long yardage. Seattle used its first-round selection on tight end Jerramy Stevens, who could challenge incumbent Itula Mili for a starting spot. At 6'7, Stevens could create numerous matchup problems for opponents.
Offensive line: Four starters are back to this unit, which has been built through the draft. The new starter is right tackle Chris McIntosh, a former first-round pick, who replaces Todd Weiner. The concern about McIntosh is a lingering neck injury. Unsigned Pro Bowler Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson form an overpowering left side, while Robbie Tobeck and Chris Gray make up for their lack of size with intensity. Floyd Wedderburn is the top reserve.
Defensive line: The Seahawks elected to let Michael Sinclair go and moved Lamar King to left end. King's old spot on the right side will be a battle between Antonio Cochran and free-agent signee Brandon Mitchell. In the middle is 306-pounder Chad Eaton, who led the line with 55 tackles and the relentless John Randle, who had a team-leading 11 sacks. The hope is to improve a unit that had just 38 sacks last season and was 15th in rushing defense.
Linebackers: Outside linebacker Chad Brown is an excellent blitzer and the other outside backer Anthony Simmons has solidified the outside by averaging 135 tackles over the last two seasons. In the middle, Harvard graduate Isaiah Kacyvenski replaces Levon Kirkland, who was waived.
Secondary: Cornerback Shawn Springs can shut down opposing wideouts when healthy, but hamstring injuries have halted his production. He started just seven games. Need second-year cornerback Ken Lucas to make steady progress. Vets Doug Evans and Willie Williams will be used in nickel and dime packages. Strong safety Reggie Tongue and free safety Marcus Robertson are solid.
Special teams: After missing 12 kicks last season, Rian Lindell faced a fierce training camp battle with Aaron Eling, but returns as the starting kicker. Jeff Feagles enters his 15th season and remains one of the top punters in the NFL. Backup wideouts James Williams and Bobby Engram are expected to return kicks and punts.
Prediction: The Seahawks have not won 10 games since 1986 and will not reach that figure in a division with St. Louis and San Francisco. Probably an 8-8 team at best.
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