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In the Trenches - Part IV
by Fritz Schlottman
July 14, 2003
 
<< Back to Part III

NFC SOUTH

 

Atlanta Falcons
Offense 2003 Additions
OL Kevin Dogins
WR MarTay Jenkins
WR Peerless Price
FB Justin Griffin 4th Round
WR Jon Olinger 5th Round
WR LaTarence Dunbar 6th Round

Offensive Line: Not a dominating unit, especially when run-blocking, that benefits from playing in front of the electric QB Michael Vick. The tackles are average and the interior of the line is weak. RT Todd Weiner and LT Bob Whitfield are serviceable and struggle with speed rushers. They lack pop at the point of the attack, but they’re a grade better than G Kynan Forney, G Travis Claridge, and C Roberto Gaza. Forney and Claridge don’t have great footwork and struggle with defenders jumping into the gap and getting out on linebackers. Gaza is a project that has some athleticism but will battle last year’s starting C Todd McClure for starting time. Having Michael Vick means the Falcons offensive linemen don’t have to hold their blocks as long, and that’s a good thing. Then again, Vick’s not exactly the prototypical sized NFL quarterback either and he’s shown that he doesn’t react well to taking a hard shot. Atlanta’s worst-case scenario is that someone gets a clean lick on Vick and he misses half the season. The Falcons offensive line needs to improve for Atlanta to make a run deep into the playoffs.

TE: Alge Crumpler will not have to share time with Reggie Kelly this year. A former number one pick, Kelly took the money and moved on to Cincinnati leaving Crumpler the starter. Not exactly a punishing blocker, nevertheless Crumpler is an intriguing fantasy player that could blossom this year.

RB: In 2002, the Falcons brought in RB T.J. Duckett with the though of using RB Warrick Dunn as the speed/receiving back and Duckett as the sledgehammer. Unfortunately, both were injured (Dunn-ankle, Duckett-foot) during the campaign. Nevertheless, Dunn managed nearly 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns and Duckett (when healthy) showed some of that punishing style of running and suprizing quickness. If both players stay healthy, both players have some fantasy potential. Dunn will get more yardage but Duckett should score more touchdowns.

WR: Without your typical number one type of receiver, the Falcons sprayed the football around the field in 2002. None of Atlanta’s receivers made much of a fantasy impact last year.

To address this area of need, the Falcons got the Bills number two receiver Peerless Price via trade. The biggest question in Atlanta, and among many fantasy owners, is can Price make the transition from being the second option to being the number one. Don’t kid yourself, being the go-to-guy is different. Price is likely to get more double coverage this year and when he’s not double covered he’ll be matched up against the opposition’s best cover corner. In large part, how he makes that transition will determine how far this team will go in the playoffs.

The signing of MarTay Jenkins is also intriguing. A frightening special teams return man, Jenkins has speed to burn but isn’t a disciplined rout runner. On the other hand, last year’s number one receiver (Brian Finneran) isn’t going to make anyone miss, but runs his routes (especially short patterns) to perfection. You could see some interesting sets from Atlanta. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a number of plays designed to have Jenkins and Price run off the defensive backs with Crumpler or Finneran running a drag rout over the middle or have every receiver go deep on a designed run play for Vick.

QB: In 2002, Michael Vick emerged as one of the NFL’s most electric, and most dangerous players. In leagues that score quarterback rushing yardage and touchdowns, Vick was solid gold last year. His sprinter’s speed and rocket arm forced defenses into zone coverage in an attempt to keep Vick in front of them. When he does escape containment, watch out! He hits another gear and, combined with Barry Sanders moves, tears his way though opposing defenses. The sheer number of quality quarterbacks in the league discounts his fantasy value, but someone in your league is going to take an early flier and take him in the late first, early second round of your draft.
Defense 2003 Additions
S Cory Hall
CB Tod McBride
LB Keith Newman
LB Twan Russell
CB Tyrone Williams
CB Bryan Scott-2nd Round
S Wayne Bacon-6th Round
DE Demetrin Veal-7th Round

Defense: The Falcons finished 19th in total defense due largely to the play LB Keith Brooking who seemed to take this team on his very substantial shoulders at times last year. Then again, you can’t expect him to do that every season. Atlanta recognized their weaknesses, the secondary in particular, and took steps to address the situation during the spring.

The defensive line isn’t physical but they are quick off the ball. DE Patrick Kerney is the best of the bunch and has some value in leagues that use IDPs. Kerney recorded 10 ½ sacks last year. What the Falcons lack is the big run stopper in the middle, forcing the defensive front to play in the gaps, which is unusual for a 3-4 defense.

Not having a big man in front meant that opposing guards could come right off the ball and get a helmet on the Falcons linebackers without having to chip on a defensive tackle, which makes the numbers put up by Brooking all that more impressive. One of the leagues’ biggest hitters, Brooking has excellent feet and can pursue sideline-to-sideline and cover backs and tight ends. Last year biggest surprise was the play of Chris Draft, who is undersized but plays much bigger than his stature. The other OLB spot will be decided in camp where Will Overstreet and Sam Rodgers will battle it out.

And now the ugly….the Falcons defensive backs were, and I say this kindly, consistently inconsistent. Atlanta gave up way too many big plays including over 600 yards to the Steelers. CB Ray Buchanan struggled on the field and with injuries off the field and Ashley Ambrose played poorly enough to find a new employer in New Orleans. Newcomers Tod McBride and Tyrone Williams will battle it out to fill Ambrose’s starting position. Neither are particularly aggressive defensive backs that should cut down on the number of big play the team gives up this season. S Cory Hall will have to step right in and start. He’s a natural run-stopper but a questionable converman. FS Keion Carpenter is the opposite, more of a natural cornerback than a safety.

Carolina Panthers
Offense 2003 Additions
RB Stephen Davis
OG Doug Brzezinski
QB Jake Delhomme
WR Ken Dyson (ah, maybe not)
WR Ricky Proehl
OT Jordan Gross-1st Round
C Bruce Nelson-2nd Round
TE Mike Seidman-3rd Round
WR Walter Young-7th Round
FB Casey Moore-7th Round

Offensive Line: The Panthers were simply dreadful running the ball last season. If you’re the pointing finger’s type, you need go no further than the knee injury to RB DeShaun Foster and the suspension of RB Lamar Smith. The offensive line wasn’t the league’s best, but it wasn’t that bad either.

The undisputed leader of this bunch is T Todd Steussie. Big, physical, and smart the former Viking has a nasty reputation and isn’t above a cheap shot when the officials are occupied elsewhere. Steussie’s physical style must have rubbed off on C Jeff Mitchell and T Melvin Tuten who seem to relish a good brawl. Guards Doug Brzezinski, signed as a free agent this spring, and Kevin Donnalley are more technique players with good feet that use leverage and angles to their advantage. It will be interesting to see if this mix of styles will work for the Panthers.

TE: It’s hard to imagine the Panthers without TE Wesley Walls. A liability as a blocker, Walls was a fantasy favorite who, when healthy, was a lock to produce fantasy points when younger, more talented players would give you little or nothing on a Sunday.

Unfortunately, the Panthers don’t have an heir in place at the tight end position. Kris Mangum is a good as it gets. So don’t look for fantasy production here.

WR: Now that Kevin Dyson has nothing better to do than rehab and blow smoke that he can come back and play this year in a lame attempt to avoid being put on season-ending injured reserve so he can get a roster bonus, the Panthers are right back where they started from. This season, Muhsin Muhannad and Steve Smith will have to do the job they didn’t do in 2002. Smith is the faster of the two but they both run routes and drop passes like Helen Keller, come to think about it, their about a physical off the line as an old, dead lady too. Needing at least one receiver that can be called on to catch the ball, Carolina signed Ricky Proehl who may play a bigger part in the offense than anyone planned this year. I’m not sure if he was signed to catch the ball or as a role-model, but Proehl runs better routes and works harder than any other receiver on Carolina’s roster.

RB: Coming off a disappointing season where he struggled in Washington’s Fun-and-Gun offense, Stephen Davis signed with a team dedicated to playing tough defense and pounding the football. Davis is one of those big runners that gets better with more carries, a perfect fit for a John Fox coached football team. He should get plenty of touches in Carolina’s system and, with a little better blocking, improve on his 820 yards and seven touchdowns of a year ago.

I’m not sure anyone knows were DeShaun Foster is with his injury. Foster was looking like a fantasy steal last summer when he suffered a terrible injury. Recovering from micro fracture surgery (which is normally reserved for injuries that aren’t recovering well) his recovery has been slow at best. My best guess is that he’ll end up sitting out most of the season.

QB: Your guess is as good as mine here. The incumbent (Rodney Peete) is two days older than dirt, can’t throw the ball with any force, gets hurt a lot, and can’t move in the pocket. On the other hand, he doesn’t make bad decisions either. Chris Weinke is a former starter off one of the worst football teams in recent memory and hasn’t proven he can make plays or avoid mistakes. Jake Delhomme has only started two regular NFL games in five seasons, but was brought in to win the quarterback job. Is none-of-the-above an option?
Defense 2003 Additions
CB Ricky Manning, Jr.-3rd Round
S Colin Branch-4th Round
DE Kindel Moorehead-5th Round

Defense: Taking DE Julius Peppers with the second pick in the 2002 draft made team ownership look like geniuses. Putting aside the suspension that sidelined him for the final four games to the season, Peppers had 12 sacks in 12 games. On the side of the formation, DE Mike Rucker had 10 sacks making the Panther defensive pair one of the more lethal combinations in the league last year. Led by their ends, the Panther finished with 52 sacks last year, second in the league. Both Peppers and Rucker will be high fantasy picks in fantasy leagues that use IDPs this season. Just on sack totals alone, the Panthers team defense will be drafted early.

The most significant change in the linebacking corps was the loss of Hannibal Navies to free agency. Navies moved on to play for the Packers this season and will be replace by Will Weatherspoon. MLB Dan Morgan is a risky fantasy selection. Capable of big numbers when healthy, Morgan always seems to be nicked up. Perhaps the team’s most consistent linebacker is Mark Fields. An unknown, Fields led the team in tackles last year.

If the Panthers had a weakness on defense last year, it was in there secondary. Both cornerbacks, Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard are raw athletes that seemed to lose focus or tried too hard to make the big play last year. That’s unfortunate as neither of their safeties (Mike Minter and Deon Grant) are physical specimens. Minter is small for a safety, but is a better tackler than a coverman. Grant isn’t the intimidating safety that makes teams fear throwing down the middle of the field. This squad my be the team’s weakness again this year unless the Panthers young corners make strides during the summer.

New Orleans Saints
Offense 2003 Additions
QB Todd Bouman
TE Ernie Conwell
TE Walter Rasby
OT Wayne Gandy
OT Jonathan Stinchcomb-2nd Round
OG Montrae Holland-4th Round
WR Kareem Kelly-6th Round
WR Talman Grandner-7th Round

Offensive Line: If this high-powered offense has a question mark, it is the offensive line. The Saints traded T Kyle Turley leaving a hole in QB Aaron Brooks’ blind-side. New Orleans signed former Steelers tackle Wayne Gandy to fill that spot in the line-up. Gandy is a solid, experienced veteran that’s in the later stages of his career. That doesn’t seen to be as big a deal as it used to be and long as Gandy keeps his weight down he should be mobile enough to get the job done this year. Victor Riley will man the other tackle spot. Another veteran, Riley has the size and quickness to be a dominating blocker, but he also struggles with conditioning. Among the interior linemen, LeCharles Bently is the most talented. A versatile player, he can play any of the three interior positions. The other guard, Spencer Folau is an overachiever that isn’t a natural athlete, but has grit and determination to spare. The starting center will likely be determined in camp. Bentley may move to center if an answer doesn’t seem forthcoming.

TE: Too many players on the roster at the tight end position means someone is getting cut. David Sloan is the returning starter with Boo Williams as the back up. The Saints added Ernie Conwell and Walter Rasby via free agency. Doubtful this team will keep four tight ends on the roster. Frankly, I’m not sure how this one will come out in the end although my guess is that Conwell will be the run blocker and Sloan will be the receiver. Williams needs to be more consistent or he needs to learn to be a long snapper if he’s going to make this football team.

RB: Deuce McAllister will be a first round pick in nearly every fantasy draft. He showed both speed and toughness last season, almost enough for Saints fans to forget that Rickey Williams used to play in a New Orleans uniform.

WR: Speed, speed, and more speed, the Saints are just loaded with weapons. Besides Joe Horn who had 88 catches for 1,312 yards and seven touchdowns in 2002, the Saints can call on Donte Stallworth, Jerome Pathon and Michael Lewis. Stallworth is a big, incredibly fast receiver that looks like a fantasy stud for years to come if he can get over his reoccurring hamstring problems. Injured, he broke the fantasy rookie receiver stereotype by catching eight touchdown passes last year. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if this guy develops into the next Terrell Owens one day, he’s that fast, that big, that good, and seems to have his head on straight. Pathon may finally produce now that the pressure of starting in Indianapolis is gone. Pathon has enough speed to challenge defenders but doesn’t run great routes and drops too may passes. Lewis is a fearsome kick returner that scares the begeebers out of defenses and may contribute to the track team at wide receiver the Saints have assembled.

QB: When Aaron Brooks is hot, the Saints offense is nearly unstoppable. Unfortunately, he’s has too many days when he struggles and leaves fantasy owners pulling their hair out. Even playing with a shoulder injury during the end of the 2002 campaign, Brook threw 27 touchdown passes opposed to 15 interceptions. Now, if he would only throw two touchdown for every interception every game he’d move up the fantasy rankings. But with Brooks, you never know what you get. You might get three touchdowns and you might get three interceptions on any given Sunday.
Defense 2003 Additions
CB Ashley Ambrose
S Tebucky Jones
LB Orlando Ruff
DT Johnathon Sullivan-1st Round
LB William Grant-3rd Round
DE Melvin Williams-5th Round

Defense: The Saints always seems to get off to a good start and then collapse during the second half of the season. 2002 was no different as he defense finished 27th in the league. The fallout from another disappointing season where the team missed the playoff despite finishing third in total offense was immediate. DT Norman Hand is no longer with the squad after the Saints played soft against the rush last season. DT Grady Jackson may also pay the price for the team’s failure to stop opposing rushers. Jackson’s weight problems continue to be an issue and the team wants more mobility from their tackles. Kenny Smith and first round pick Johnathon Sullivan will compete for a starting spot. DEs Charles Grant and Darren Howard will start again this year.

Again, the need to find player that can stop the opposition’s running game was foremost in the team’s mind when they signed LB Orland Ruff from the Chargers. A big guy that couldn’t cover his own shadow, Ruff has the size to take on guards in the middle of the line of scrimmage. The rest of the linebacking corps is a big question mark. Charlie Clemons was lost to free agency and no obvious replacement is available. Sedrick Hodge and James Allen will get the first crack in camp, but neither is a sure thing to start the season. The Saints may be looking at the waiver wire in August for help.

More questions in the secondary. Adding Ashley Ambrose into the mix gives the team at least one dependable cornerback. No longer able to keep pace with speedy wideouts, Abrose is a patch for the last one or two years of his career. Dale Carter can be a Pro Bowl player when his head is on straight, but off the field problems have placed him in the league’s sin bin in the past making him a gamble for the team and for fantasy owners. The loss of fantasy favorite Sammy Knight will be substantial. Fantasy owners loved his daredevil style that produced interceptions and big hits, but the team felt the pain when he gambled and lost. Tebucky Jones is more of a “keep the play in front of you” kind of player and should give up less big plays than Knight did. The other safeties have very limited physical skills.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Offense 2003 Additions
WR Jacquez Green
RB Thomas Jones
QB Jim Miller
OB Chris Simms-3rd Round
T Lance Nimmo-4th Round
C Austin King-4th Round
C John Wade
G Sean Mahen-5th Round
G Jason Whittle

Offensive Line: If the Bucs had a weakness in 2002 this was the unit. Not surprising that they threw five new players into the mix in order to repeat their championship run of last season.

John Wade replaces C Jeff Christy in the starting line up. Wade is a scrappy veteran that brings the team a toughness that was lacking at the position last year. He’ll line up next to a new starting guard, either Jason Whittle or Cosey Coleman should win the job in camp. My bet is on Whittle who is the kind of fighter head coach Jon Gruden loves. The other guard position (Kerry Jenkins) and both starting tackle positions (Kenyatta Walker and Roman Oben) should be holdovers from 2002. Not a spectacular unit, but the offensive line has more depth than last year.

RB: Okay, now who gets the ball? After beating up the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl, Tampa’s backfield combination of Mike Alstott and Michael Pittman looked like a lock to grind and punish NFL defenders this year. That was before Pittman decided to use his car as a weapon during a dispute with his wife. Pittman already had one domestic assault on the league’s books and will certainly face a considerable suspension this season. To plug the gap, the Buc’s signed former Cardinal number one pick Thomas Jones to the roster. Jones will compete with Alstott, Aaron Stecker and Jameel Cook for carries. No sure bet out of this bunch.

WR: No changes here. Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell, and Joe Jurevicius are locks to start.
Defense 2003 Additions
LB Dwayne Rudd
DE Dewayne White-2nd Round
CB Torrie Cox-6th Round

Defense: It wasn’t like this team needed help anyway. The Buc’s were 2002’s top rated unit. Able to get pressure from their front four without having to blitz, Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice (15 ½ sacks in 2002) were big time fantasy performers in 2002. Both Rice and Sapp are cat quick and have a motor that never seems to stop. Sapp forces the quarterback to bail out of the pocket by driving up through the center and Rice comes around the end to seal the deal.

Derrick Brooks is one of the best fantasy linebackers, in fact, he’s one of the best linebackers in the NFL period. He has the speed to play every down and cover tight ends and backs in the open field and then comes off his receiver and accelerates through the ball carrier for the big hit. To top it off he contributed five interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns. Rudd had to find a new home after the helmet throwing mental breakdown that cost the Browns a game last year. No better place to land than Tampa were he’ll start along side Brooks and the under rated Shelton Quarrels.

FS Dexter Jackson moved on in free agency opening up a starting spot for Dwight Smith. Smith was being groomed as a replacement for SS John Lynch but will get a chance to start earlier than expected. Unfortunately for opponents, that gives the Buc’s two big-hitting safeties in the middle of the field. Rhonde Barber and Brian Kelly are two of the better corners in the league. Kelly finished tied for the league’s lead in interceptions in 2002 and Barber finished third on the team in tackles. Without an apparent weakness, the Buc’s defense should dominate again this season.

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals
Offense 2003 Additions
QB Jeff Blake
WR Larry Foster
G Frank Garcia
FB James Hodgins
RB Emmitt Smith
OL Cameron Spikes
WR Bryant Johnson-1st Round
WR Anquan Boldin-2nd Round

Offensive Line: Undoubtedly, the strength of the Cardinals squad is the offensive line. Big, young, and fast these road graters will be asked to power the running game while the team tries to put a passing game together. Leonard Davis is an offensive line all by himself. Listed at 6-6, 384 lb. (oh, and he might be a wee bit larger than that) he’s just a monster at the guard position. Drafted as a right tackle, Davis moved inside and simply overpowers any opponent he can lock up with. Lining up next to Davis is no finesse player either. RT Anthony Clement tips the scale at 6-8 330 lb. The baby of the group is LT L.J. Sheldon whose mass is in the neighborhood of 6-6 330lb. Clement is coming off a triceps injury that kept him off the field for almost the entire 2002 season should be ready to play this fall, baring a setback. The other guard is Pete Kendall. The former Seahawk may play guard and he may start at center this year. If Kendall plays center than Chris Dishman will be the starting guard.

TE: Freddy Jones has made a career of pissing-off fantasy owners. Having all the talent in the world he has never lived up to the huge expectations that dog him every season. He caught 44 balls last year but never seem inspired enough to battle his way into the end zone.

WR: Just two years ago the Cardinals looked like they were finally on their way to the NFL’s upper division. And now, after the team parted ways with their top three wide receivers, they have to start all over again. Two years ago, David Boston was the best receiver in football. Two years later and a traffic stop were police found evidence of cocaine in his car and Boston was traded for a song to the Chargers. Surprise, surprise, the Cardinals are once again odds-on favorites to finish last in the league.

Arizona’s best returning wide receiver is Brian Gilmore. If that wasn’t bad enough, he’s coming off a fracture ankle. Ready or not rookie WR Bryant Johnson will get all the OTJ experience he can handle as he will likely start over former Lions reserve Larry Foster. Second round pick Anquan Boldin will man the slot and may return kicks this season. Oh, this is ugly.

RB: Just when the Cardinals found a serviceable fantasy back (Marcell Shipp) they have to goof things up just so they can sell a few season tickets. Shipp was a fantasy find last year after Michael Pittman moved to Tampa Bay and the team finally lost faith in former number one pick Thomas Jones. Not a pretty runner Shipp is a hard worker that hits the hole hard and grinds out yardage. There was no reason to bring in Emmitt Smith other than it’s the only reason any marginally sane individual would have for watching this terrible football team. Without Smith, you might have 20,000 fans at a home game. With him, you might have an extra 20,000 fans per game.

QB: Jake Plummer got run out of town after finishing yet another season with more interceptions than touchdowns. Jeff Blake becomes the new starting quarterback. Blake decided to move to Arizona and make starting quarterback money rather than sit on the bench in Baltimore. He may regret that decision. Blake’s upside is that he throws a beautiful rainbow long ball. His downside is that he makes questionable decisions and he has all the heart of a former Bengal. When or if he can get on the same page as his new receiving corps is anyone’s guess. Its likely defenses will be putting eight and nine men in the box until the Cardinals prove they can pass the ball effectively.
Defense 2003 Additions
LB James Darling
S Dexter Jackson
DE Calvin Pace-1st Round
LB Gerald Hayes-3rd Round
DT Kenny King-5th Round
LB Tony Gilbert-6th Round.

Defense: Poor Head Coach Dave McGinnis. On Draft Day he’s sitting with the opportunity to get the best defensive end in the draft and the owner decides to tool on him like the last inflatable sheep at a prison rodeo and he has to come out and blow smoke at the press about how he got the player he wanted. There is no doubt that McGinnis wanted a defensive end. Finishing dead last in the league with 21 sacks, the Cardinals desperately needed someone that could rush the passer. The entire defensive line had only 13 ½ sacks last year. Instead the team traded down to get two first round picks, took a receiver with the first one and then reached for DE Calvin Pace with the second. Not expected to be taken in the first round, Pace will be the starter on opening day. The other end, Fred Wakefield is tall and rangy and couldn’t get to the quarterback if he signal-caller was nailed to a tree. DT Kyle Vanden Bosh is a overachiever and the team’s best lineman. Last season’s first-round pick Wendell Bryant had the good sense not to sign until the third week of 2002 and backed up that decision by being ineffective for the final 13 games. Barron Tanner figures to man the other tackle spot by default.

As if this team needed another weakness, the Cardinals linebacking situation hovers somewhere between embarrassing and putrid. Raynoch Thompson leads a bunch of over achievers and typifies this group-too, small, too slow, cheap contract, big heart. Most of them look like strong safeties. MLB Ronald McKinnon is an interesting fantasy player given that he’s likely to be on the field for 40 minutes per game and there’s no one up front that’s going to tackle a ball carrier before he gets past the line of scrimmage. The other linebacker position is a complete crap shoot going into camp.

I hope Dexter Jackson enjoys his money. Imagine going from the Buc’s huddle to this cluster. He has to be the man in a secondary. The man last year was supposed to be CB Duane Starks. Duane took the money and promptly laid a dump right there on the field. Too injured to play effectively, he spent most of 2002 in the team’s whirlpool. The other corner, David Barrett, will play hard every game, but lacks the speed to keep up with receivers running down the field. SS Adrian Wilson is a big hitter who has the physical talent to play, but has mental breakdowns that result in too many big plays.

St. Louis Rams
Offense 2003 Additions
TE Cam Cleeland
RB Leon Johnson
OG David Loverne
OT Kyle Turley
C Dave Wohlabaugh
WR Kevin Curtis-3rd Round
WR Shaun McDonald-4th Round
TE Dan Curley-5th Round
OG Scott Tercero-6th Round
TE Richard Angulo-7th Round

Offensive Line: The Rams offensive line was a disaster in 2002. Former Pro Bowl LT Orlando Pace played only ten games and when he got on the field he was slowed by injuries to his calf, hamstring, and knee. Without his usual mobility he wasn’t much more than a turnstile when matched up against speed rushers. Speaking of not being able to handle quick defensive ends, the Rams’ experiment with John St. Clair, a natural center, at RT was an unqualified disaster and lasted exactly one season. His bad habit of whiffing on blocks contributed to the Rams sudden offensive problems and eventually led to QB Kurt Warner spending quality time with the hospital staff.

Give St. Louis credit for going out and making moves to fix a weakness. St. Claire is back to being a reserve, his starting spot filled by Kyle Turley. Turley comes over from the Saints and will be moved back to right tackle this year. Frankly, the Rams needed a mean-spirited, helmet-chucking, troublemaker to bring more toughness to this unit. Dave Wohlabaugh is younger and tougher than last year’s starting center (McCollun) who will play guard with Timmerman.

TE: The starting tight end job is up for grabs this summer. Cam Cleeland was brought in to be the starter. He has the size and speed to be every down player, but he’s fought injuries throughout his career. Brandon Manumaleuna will push him for playing time.

WR: Given that Bruce and Holt are Bruce and Holt, you have to look at the Rams’ depth at the position. Last year’s number three WR Terrence Wilkins and former Steeler Troy Edwards were disappointments. Expect rookies Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald to compete for that spot.

RB: Marshall Faulk had a un-Faulk like 2002. Turning 30 years old this year, Faulk’s reliability is more of a question than ever. Then again, if he stays healthy, Faulk’s still capable of putting up huge fantasy numbers and may be one of your draft’s best bargains. Lamar Gordon no longer has to compete with Trung Candidate for the backup job. The Rams will be breaking in a new fullback (Niklos) after their guard in the backfield (Hodgins) has moved on.

QB: Warner and Bulger are such nice-guys it makes me sick just thinking about it. It would be more interesting to see their significant others have a cat fight to for the starter’s paycheck, maybe in Jell-O…but that’s just me. Warner doesn’t like getting creamed and the pressure he was under last year seemed to rattle him. He made too many mistakes with the football as a result. Bulger came on when Warner got hurt and looked great. Warner will be the starter this year, but how long he stays as a the starter may depend on how well the reworked offensive line performs.
Defense 2003 Additions
DB Jason Sehorn
DT Jimmy Kennedy-1st Round
LB Pisa Tinoisamoa-2nd Round
CB DeJauan Groce-4th Round
CB Shane Walton-5th Round
CB Kevin Garrett-5th Round
LB Scott Shanle-7th Round

Defense: The Rams defense was a huge disappointment last year. DE Leonard Little was the only starter that had a Pro Bowl-type of year. His 12 sacks and 9 forced fumbles earned him a fat contract. On the other side, Grant Wistrom, despite playing hard, did not live up to expectations. Getting 4 ½ sacks out of an undersized speed rusher coming off the corner isn’t going to cut it. The Rams are going to need more out of him this year. The St. Louis defensive tackle situation is more about promise then performance. You have three current and former number one picks in the rotation (Damione Lewis, Ryan Pickett, and Jimmy Kennedy) an yet the defensive tackle position has been a team weakness and not a strength. Two of the three must prove their worth all the money sunk into them this year.

The Rams linebacker situation was so bad last year that the team was lining up S Adam Archuleta at linebacker in a 4-1-6 defense. Pretty bad state of affairs when your safety is the second best linebacker on the team. Tommy Polley is the only consistent player in the group and he missed four games in 2002. Another underachieving first round pick (Robert Thomas) has speed but doesn’t have the bulk at 229 lb. to take on the fullbacks, tight ends, and guards coming at him. He has to get protection form the defensive linemen (should I laugh now?) to be effective. Jamie Duncan was signed as a free agent (Tampa) and was miserable last season. No wonder the Rams drafted two linebackers to compete this summer.

The secondary wasn’t as bad as the linebackers, but it wasn’t great either. As a unit they had a disappointing 12 interceptions in 2002. Adam Archuleta was the best of the bunch and is a top fantasy prospect this year. He has a nose for the ball and comes up to the line of scrimmage and makes tackles. CB Aneneas Williams was supposed to upgrade the Rams secondary last year, but started more games on the bench than on the field due to injury. He’s a crafty veteran that still has something to give, but Williams is well past his prime. CB Travis Fisher got OTJ training last year and is still a work in progress as is S Kim Herring who will have to fight off the rookies this summer to keep his starting job.

San Francisco 49ers
Offense 2003 Additions
TE Jed Weaver
T Kwame Harris-1st Round
WR Brandon Lloyd-4th Round
WR Arnaz Battle-6th Round
QB Ken Dorsey-7th Round

Offensive Line: Aside from the Detroit Lions, no team gave up fewer sacks in 2002 than the San Francisco 49ers. Having a mobile quarterback helped as did throwing short, timing patterns that frustrated many 49ers faithful and may have contributed to a coaching change during the off-season. Regardless, all management’s moves worked out well in 2002. These positive changes included drafting G Eric Heitmann in the 7th round. Heitmann immediately replaced Dave Fiore in the starting lineup and never looked back. The other great move was signing G Ron Stone who contributed immediately. Lining up between them is Pro Bowl C Jeremy Newberry and the “Pro Bowl” tag tells you all you need to know about how he played in 2002. Derrick Deese is a nasty SOB at one tackle and Scott Gregg combine height (“officially” listed at 6-8), long arms and good footwork. Together, these five form one of the better units in the conference.

TE: Jed Weaver and incumbent starter Eric Johnson will battle it out in camp. Johnson slipped as a fantasy player last year. He bulked up to be a better blocker and looked a step slower as a result.

WR: I could write a soap opera about Terrell Owens. When motivated (meaning when he’s getting everything he wants) he’s the best receiver in the league. When he’s not (and it’s not always about Terrell all the time) he’s throwing a temper tantrum or sulking. His emotional states and drama-queen persona put him at odds with his former head coach and eventually one of them had to go, sorry Mooch. If that was the end of it, 49ers fans would be grateful indeed. But no, now Owens is unhappy with his contract and feuding with team management and new head coach Dennis Erickson. More drama to come.

Tai Streets made the underachieving J.J. Stokes expendable once and for all. Streets really seemed to work on his route running and you could see him grow in confidence every week. He’s solid as the team’s number two wide receiver.

The number three job is anyone’s guess. Cedrick Wilson was on the roster last year, but hasn’t played much. He’ll fight it out with the two rookies (Battle and Lloyd) this summer.

RB: Hearst or Barlow? Fantasy owners are dying to know. Barlow is younger and at 240 lb. much more physical than Hearst and he’s a pretty good receiver to boot. Picking up blitzers is another matter, something Hearst is among the best at. My best guess is that if neither gets hurt, Hearst gets traded somewhere and Barlow gets the job if he’s a more disciplined blocker this summer. Paul Smith is also a back to keep your eye on. If Hearst stays, then Smith may go elsewhere this summer. With the salary cap, it’s too expensive to keep three good runningbacks on your team and you get zip for them if they become free agents.

QB: Jeff Garcia is getting up there in years and you’re beginning to hear rumblings about his fading arm strength. You won’t have to wait long to see if he’s still got zip on the old bean because Erickson plans to give the fans what they’ve been calling for and throw it down the football field. Garcia isn’t a big guy that can fake it and muscle the ball to a receiver. He’s a technique thrower. A good sign for fantasy owner will be if he can keep a tight spiral when he’s putting maximum effort into the pass. If he’s throwing rainbows, he should improve on 2002’s numbers. It is quacks like a duck when it flies out of his hand, he’s going to struggle in this new offense.
Defense 2003 Additions
DT Travis Kirschke
DT Ross Kolodziej
DT Anthony Adams-2nd Round
DE Andrew Williams-3rd Round

Defense: Guess where the 49ers needed improvement this year? Bringing in three defensive tackles to compete is a sure sign that management has issues with the team’s run defense. Aside from DE Andre Carter and the aging DT Bryant Young no one excelled on the defensive front last year. Unfortunately, Carter isn’t big enough to play tough against the run. The other defensive end, John Engelberger is injured more often than not. Young had a Pro Bowl season but is too old to keep it up for very much longer and may be put into the rotation at defensive tackle this season to squeeze out a couple more productive years from his body. The other defensive tackle spot is an open competition between the newcomers, Josh Shaw and Jim Flanigan, Flanigan backed up Dana Stubblefield last season but probably isn’t the long term answer the team’s looking for. Management would like the more physically gifted Adams to win the job, but it’s too early to tell if the undersized tackle can put on more weight and play effectively.

On paper, the 49ers have one of the conference’s best linebacking groups. Of course, one or more of them are always injured and that’s a problem. OLB Julian Peterson was rough coming out of Michigan State, but made huge strides last year. With speed to burn, he excels in the open field and covering receivers. He isn’t the most physical linebacker and he struggles to get off blocks. Dereck Smith is as steady as you get in the middle, and the 49ers are fortunate to have two players at the other LB position. Jeff Ulbrich is a tough SOB that can’t stay healthy and Jamie Winborn probably has more god-given talent than any other player on the defensive side of the ball, but suffered a knee injury in 2002.

The 49ers secondary isn’t that good, particularly at cornerback. S Tony Parrish made everyone forget about Lance Schulters in a big hurry. He’s got cornerback cover skills, makes big plays, and will come up and make tackles on opposing ball carriers. The other safety, Zach Bronson, is better than most at the position. On the flip side, last year’s top draft pick CB Mike Rumph was abused when inserted into the line up. As soon as he went into the game, opposing teams found him and went right after him. Let’s hope he has a short memory or he may be scarred for life. CB Ahmed Plummer is rehabbing a shoulder injury he picked up in last year’s playoffs. He’s not that physical to begin with and if he protects that injury when tackling, he’s a liability on the field. The other cornerback, Jason Webster, isn’t very tall and gets taken advantage of when matched against bigger receivers.

Seattle Seahawks
Offense 2003 Additions
T Michael Thompson
T Wayne Hunter-3rd Round
QB Seneca Wallace-4th Round
FB Chris Davis-5th Round
WR Taco Wallace-7th Round

Offensive Line: When T Walter Jones made the Pro Bowl in 2002. Not the biggest tackle at 6-5, 315 lb. he has exceptional footwork and determination. The team had a known commodity in Jones, the surprise of the 2002 season was the play of the other tackle Chris Terry. Terry wasn’t the Seahawks starting tackle at the begging of last season, he wasn’t even with the team until he was picked up off the waiver wire around Thanksgiving but this bruiser took the position from Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack struggled and never looked back. Womack gets moved to guard to compete with Jerry Wunsch and Chris Gary-with no favorite going into camp. Chris Hutchinson suffered a broken leg last season and played only four games but seems to share Terry’s old-school mentality.

TE: Jerramy Stevens has all the physical tools to be an excellent fantasy tight end. The problem is that he’s an idiot. Every time you turn around he’s in a police line-up. The more jail time Stevens gets, the more playing time Itula Mili gets…that’s just how it seems to work out.

WR: The Seahawks are set at wide receiver. Koren Robinson had a huge 2002 season for fantasy owners racking up over twelve hundred yards and nearly eight catches. Darrell Jackson is among the league’s best number two receivers and Bobby Engram is a perfect number three. This unit should be among the league’s best if they stay healthy.

RB: I really like the Seahawks runningback situation. Shaun Alexander is a scoring machine. The former first round pick out of Alabama is big, powerful and quick. He excels at punching it in at the goal line and yet he has the speed and quickness to make a cutback move, accelerate though the hole, and mow down defensive backs. As good as Alexander is, Maurice Morris may be better. Morris is faster, yet hits the holes like a big back. In addition, he has soft hands and is a better receiver than Alexander at this point. So long as Alexander stays healthy and puts the pigskin in the end zone, Morris may never be a starter with this team, but he may get more carries this year.

QB: Its Matt Hasselbeck’s show this year. After replacing Trent Dilfer when Dilfer tore a Achilles tendon tear, Hasselbeck suddenly developed a Zen-like understanding with the offense and his receivers. The result was the Seahawks went on a tear at the end of 2002. He isn’t the league’s most gifted quarterback, but his “connection” with his wide receivers resulted in four three hundred yard games. Based on that production, Hasselbeck goes into camp as the starter this season.
Defense 2003 Additions
DT Norman Hand
DE Chike Okeafor
S Damien Robinson
CB Marcus Trufant-1st Round
S Ken Hamilton-2nd Round
LB Solomon Bates-4th Round
DT Rashad Moore-6th Round

Defense: No team was worse against the rush in 2002 than the Seattle Seahawks. It wasn’t even close. They game up almost 16 yards per game more than the 31st ranked team (New England). Naturally, they sacked their defensive coordinator and brought in Ray Rhoads who has had a long working relationship with head coach Mike Holmgren going back to their 49ers days.

The biggest change up font (literally) is the addition of DT Norman Hand. Hand is “officially” weighed in at 326 this spring but that’s probably the best shape he’ll be in all season. He’s supposed to be the run stopper this team desperately needs. The other tackles on the roster: John Randle, Chris Eaton, Cederick Woodard, and Rocky Bernard are a combination of unknowns and aging veterans. Not that long ago Randle (when he played with the Vikings) was one of the league’s most feared defensive tackles. But he’s 35 years old now and coming off a knee injury. Both Randal and Eaton are effort players and pass rush specialists that should be in on passing downs.

Who will be playing defensive end is more of a mystery. Lamar King has been an absolute bust and has a permanent spot reserved for him in Holmgren’s doghouse. Antonio Cochran beat him out of a starting spot in 2002 and has played well enough to merit a starting spot this season. Former 49er Chike Okeafor is the front runner for the other starting end spot, but he’ll get a challenge this summer.

OLB Anthony Simmons is the only reliable linebacker this team has and it took a lot to get him to sign this year. Reliable may be too strong a word considering he missed nine games last season, let’s just say he has the most potential. The other OLB, Chris Brown, was also MIA for much of the 2002 campaign with a broken foot. Both middle linebackers (Orlando Huff and Isaiah Kacyvenski) were injured. In short, the linebacking corps needed its own M*A*S*H unit last season.

The Seattle secondary is filled with “what ifs”. What if CB Shawn Springs wasn’t a head case? He one of the league’s best cornerbacks when he isn’t injured or doing something stupid off the field. What if Ken Lucus improves on his 2002 performance?. A rookie last season, Lucus was a pleasant surprise and if he continues to develop he may be one of the better corners in the not too distant future. What if Marcus Trufant doesn’t struggle as a rookie? If the best corner in this year’s draft comes around and Springs rebounds now you’re looking at three good corners on the field. What if the Seahawks can find a pair of safeties? Tongue is a cover guy that can’t out wrestle a cat two falls out of three and he had more tackles than any other player on the team. The Seahawks signed Damien Robinson just to give them one defensive back that will step up and plant a ball carrier.

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