Commentary

team reports

Updated: July 10, 2012, 1:41 PM ET
By John Broder, John Clayton, Alan Grant, John Hassan, Daniel Hodes, Monica Lewis

AFC EAST

1 indianapolis colts

Revved Up

Baring injury to the big threePeyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrisonthis division is the Colts for the taking. Coach Jim Mora has more wins than Vince Lombardi (173 to 105), but none in the playoffs. That changes this season. Manning is the best QB in the AFC, Manning-to-Harrison the best tandem since Marino-to-Clayton. Rookie of the Year James (1,553 yards) wont rack up 369 carries againthats an insane numberbut hell be used more in the passing game. A strong receiving corpsTerrence Wilkins, Jerome Pathon, E.G. Green, TE Ken Dilgeroperates in Harrisons shadow. You just know Mike Vanderjagt has a couple of game-winning kicks in him. Upgrades on D may be the postseason difference-maker. Ex-Giant DE Bernard Holsey joins a studly line featuring DE Chad Bratzke and DT Ellis Johnson. Draft picks Rob Morris and Marcus Washington make the linebacking unit better, though leading tackler Cornelius Bennett still hasnt recovered from knee surgery. Still, theres more than enough kick on Peytons side of the ball to give these Colts a run at January in Tampa.

Player the word

offense

WR M. Harison That debate about the 96 receiving class? Its over A

WR T. Wilkins Makes them forget J. Pathon, E.G. Green. Not hard, but still B

TE K. Dilger Pro Bowler; just hasnt been invited yet A

LT T. Glen Gets better as team does. Or is it vice versa? B

LG S. McKiney Slipped a notch in 99, but still has lots of notches left B

C J. SATURDAY New pivot ready for Sundays and Monday nights C

RG L. Moore Center shifts to guard after losing camp duel C

RT A. Meadows See T. Glenn B

QB P. Maning All that improvement in 99 leaves little room for more A

RB E. James Know what hed be without Manning? A pretty good offense A

FB J. FINN But versatile Marcus Pollard makes Jim irrelevant C

Special Teams Speedy (KR Wilkins). Steady (PK M. Vanderjagt). Sweet A

Offensive GRADE A

defense

DE B. Holsey Who? C

DT B. Whittington Still? C

DT E. Johnson Finally! B

DE C. Brat zke Turns out, Strahan doesnt make the man A

LB C. Benett Dreaming about sixth Super Bowl B

LB R. Moris D. Hollier starts season, BYU rookie finishes B

LB M. Peterson When he cracked lineup, they started cracking down B

CB J. Buris Pro Bowl size, ArenaBowl results C

CB T. Poole Speed to burn, tendency to be burned C

SS C. Cota As strong safeties go, hes not bad. For the Colts, anyway C

FS J. Belser No INTs in 99, but still best of bunch B

Special Teams Sloppy (P Hunter Smith). Shaky (coverage). Scary D

Defensive grade B

The Deal Jim Mora gets his first playoff win, maybe a couple of them

Indy allowed an AFC-high 62 sacks in 1997. But the Colts have given up just 36 since, and none in 14 of those games.

Team Grade: A

2 buffalo bills

The replace -

Taking Thurman , Andre and Bruce off the Bills is like taking Lars, Kirk and James out of Metallica: Maybe itll all work out, but it aint gonna be the same. So can the Bills win with Antowain, Eric and Marcellus? RB Antowain Smith rushed for just 614 yards last season but had 1,124 in 98. WR Eric Moulds is a gamebreaker, and 2000 is a contract year for him. Moulds is joined by WR Peerless Price and TE Jay Riemersma, giving the Bills a lethal air attack. But who will throw to them? Coach Wade Phillips reignited a whale of a QB controversy when he benched Doug Flutie for Rob Johnson just before the AFC wild-card gameand lost. But Phillips is sticking with the bigger, stronger Johnson even though Flutie, out until mid-September with a groin injury, is 17 8 as a Buffalo starter and Johnson has been sacked 37 times in eight career starts. Defensively, the Bills can still bring the heavy metal, especially at linebacker, where Sam Cowart anchors the teams best unit. But Marcellus Wiley for Bruce Smith at DE? Lets just say hes no Sammy Hagar.

Player the word

offense

WR E. Moulds Ever notice theyre a lot better when hes not hurt? B

WR P. Price Makes them faster and younger. Jurys out on better C

TE J. Riemersma Well, his hands are pretty good, anyway C

LT J. Fina Small profile, big blocker B

LG R. Brown See pass rusher. See pass rusher on butt A

C J. Ostroski For a right tackle, hes not a bad center C

RG J. Panos Back from a neck injury. Hopefully I

RT R. Hicks Actually, they kind of missed him in the playoffs C

QB R. Johnson Well, he did have the Titans beat C

RB A. Smith Good enough ... to share time with J. Linton C

FB S. Jackson Call him FB, RB, H-back and TE. Or just busy I

Special Teams You can count on S. Christie. Except when you cant C

Offensive grade B

defense

DE P. Hansen Name five DEs whove been good for longer. Take your time B

NT T. Washington Man-mountain may have peaked B

DE M. Wiley Guy with bum back replaces legend. Cake C

LB K. Newman As in New man in tough spot I

LB J. Holocek With Cowart, 302 tackles in 99. Do the math. Its a lot B

LB S. Cowart Answer to Now whos their best defender? A

LB S. Rogers Maybe switch to weakside will help. Nah C

CB K. Irwin Had to fend off more passes last year than Kournikova C

CB A. Winfield Promising. So can he promise to make them forget T. Smith? B

SS H. Jones Big play ball-hawk now settles for stopping run B

FS K. Carpenter A lot of guys want this job. Hell get it I

Special Teams Now ghost of the lateral haunts this lame unit, too D

The Deal AFCs Team of 90s overhauling to be Team of 00s

No.1 in fewest yards allowed, No.2 in points allowed and offensive TDs surrendered. Not one D-player went to Hawaii.

Team grade B-

3 new england patriots

Fill the bill

Bil Belichick coming to a great defense is like Bill Gates getting a tax refund. Here he inherits the leagues best cover man, Ty Law, and talented players all over the fieldRE/ OLB Willie McGinest, MLB Ted Johnson and OLB Chris Slade, to name a few. Belichicks schemes will put the onus on his LBs to make tackles. Slade, Johnson and Andy Katzenmoyer have no problem with that. And now that SS Lawyer Milloy has been resigned, he and Law will lead the D from the backfield. The games best defensive coach does have problems on offense, though, especially on the patchwork line, where veteran Bruce Armstrong was re-signed after being put out to pasture. The Pats have yet to find someone to replace RB Robert Edwards (out all last season and all this season with that freak knee injury). Drew Bledsoe still has the great arm, but hasnt figured out how to complete a pass from his butt (55 sacks last season). And the Pats are still wondering what kind of numbers WR Terry Glenn would put up if he were to stay healthy and sane in the same season.

Player the word

offense

WR T. Glen Can you make a Pro Bowl and still be erratic? B

WR T. BROWN Surprise release of Vincent Brisby is Troys gain C

TE E. Bjornson Name is Swedish for Let the backup do the blocking! C

LT B. Armstrong One day hell be too old. Well be dead by then B

LG M. Lane Aptly named, since he too often is one to Bledsoe C

C D. Woody Nobody plays harder C

RG T. Rucci Knee surgery didnt hurt. Of course, it didnt help C

RT G. ROBINSON-RANDALL Rookie makes most of Pats summer injury woes D

QB D. Bledsoe Face it, hes decent. Never great. Get over it B

RB R. Haris Those circling vultures are K. Faulk and J.R. Redmond D

FB T. CARTER Wouldnt split time with C. Floyd if he could block D

Special Teams A. Vinatieri is fading, rest of unit is invisible C

Offensive Grade C

defense

DE B. Hamilton Knows Belichick. Knowledge = power. Or at least a job C

NT C. Eaton Will job share with H. Thomas, which is sad all around C

DE B. Mitchell Maybe Belichick will help. Big maybe. Huge D

LB C. Slade With W. McGinest, he anchors strong unit A

LB T. Johnson Not best, but toughest. Thats enough B

LB T. Bruschi Hey! Turns out he can play the run, too B

LB W. McGinest Could anchor unit without Slade A

CB T. Law Good enough to make you overlook lapses. For now A

CB K. Serwanga Cool name, anyway C

SS L. Miloy Good enough to make you overlook lapses. If he had any A

FS T. Jones May have finally found a home. Who forgot to lock door? D

Special Teams When punter is the best of the unit C

Defensive Grade B

The Deal

Everybodys excited that Bills in town. Lets chat in November

Drew Bledsoe threw 6 TDs and 17 INTs during 1999s 26 finish; he threw 13 TDs and 4 INTs in a 62 start.

Team grade B-

4 new york jets

Tuna Salad

bill Parcells stepped down. Bill Belichick bolted. Keyshawns in Tampa. Poor Al Groh is left to pick up the pieces. Grohs first draft (four first-rounders) has some studs. DE Shaun Ellis will start at left defensive end and LB John Abraham, fast as a DB, will chase QBs on third downs. The D-line, with Jason Ferguson back from injury and suspension, is better. Four of the top six LBs are over 30, but its the teams strongest unit. The secondary, led by CBs Marcus Coleman and Aaron Glenn, can cover with the best. Biggest question? Can Mike Nolan, who ran those porous Skins defenses, replace Belichick? On O, Vinny Testaverde is coming off an Achilles injury. Young line now may be the strength of the team. The line is stronger, but if a deal isnt made for a bookend for WR Wayne Chrebet, teams will put eight in the box to shut down Vinny and RB Curtis Martin (still one of the best). Theres little behind Martin if he gets hurt. Remember when Ray Handley replaced Parcells with the Giants, and Pete Carroll replaced him with the Pats? Groh was an assistant during both disasters. Maybe the third times the charm.

Player the word

offense

WR D. Ward Now its his job to lose. And V. Brisby thinks he might C

WR W. Chrebet Lets see how the little guy likes being the big man B

TE A. Becht Not, repeat not, in mold of J. Mitchell or K. Brady B

LT J. Fabini Plays like old vet in young guys body B

LG K. Jenkins Weak link on this line is still pretty strong C

C K. Mawae NFLs best center is old man (29) on young line A

RG R. Thomas Hope he likes poi, because hell be eating it soon B

RT R. Young Solid youngster and jets have Jumbo insurance policy C

QB V. Testaverde Used to be reading defenses was his Achilles heel B

RB C. Martin Is he really that productive? Well, yeah A

FB R. Anderson Likes to run and catch. Blocking, he can take or leave C

Special Teams Putting Coles on the fire will heat things up B

Offensive Grade B-

defense

DE S. Ellis Rookie transfusion for anemic pass rush B

NT J. Ferguson Best Jet lineman in 99. File under Not saying too much C

DE R. LYLE A. Cook, S. Burton, D. Boose. Use pencil . . . C

LB M. Lewis Jets fans, take a last look at teams best defender of 90s A

LB B. Cox More bark than bite, but just to be safe, keep fingers away C

LB M. Jones Hes due for a healthy season, isnt he? B

LB J. Farior What the heck, give the guy a chance. A last chance C

CB A. Glen Blame shaky 99 on the other guy A

CB M. Coleman Can he play well for 16 games? Glenns dying to know B

SS V. Gren Doesnt hit em as much, but still hurts em as much B

FS O. Stoutmire If you cant find anything nice to say D

Special Teams If only Pro Bowler T. Tupa could nail every coffin corner B

Defensive Grade C+

The Deal No Keyshawn, fine. No Tuna, well ...

The Jets finished with wins in six of their last nine games in 99. Seven other teams did, too. Only Jets missed the playoffs.

Team grade C+

5 miami dolphins

Fresh Fish

Welcome to A.M. Miami where, for the first time since 1982, the starting QB is not the quickest release in the East. Welcome to A.J. Miami, where the guy with The Hair no longer prowls the sideline. Damon Huard for Marino? Dave Wannstedt for JJ? Hey, how bout them Hurricanes? But those big changes dont mean the Fish have changed anything else, like a wafer-thin rushing attack (22nd overall). J.J. Johnson is the starter despite a lingering s o re hammy. The Dolphs added fin-killer Thurman Thomas and ex-Saint Lamar Smith, but Thomas is 34, and the last time Smith rushed for 1,000 yards was ... oh right, never. Rookie OT Todd Wade brings 325 pounds and a ton of attitude (hes already gone at it with Warren Sapp) to an unsteady line. The D is outstanding, with All-Pro MLB Zach Thomas and trash-talking CB Sam Madison setting the tone. So hey, look on the bright side: Huard is 41 as starter. Wannstedt can coach defense. DE Jason Taylor looks like hell stay above 250 pounds this season. And theres no more pressure on the rest of the guys to get one man a championship ring. Aint change beautiful?

Player the word

offense

WR T. Martin Double threat to: 1) go deep; 2) disappear B

WR L. THOMAS Guffaws are down to a smile or two for O.J. McDuffies fill-in C

TE H. Goodwin 6'5'', 270-pounder not in lineup as big target for Huard C

LT R. Web Not a JJ fave, which, of course, no longer matters A

LG M. Dixon All-Star future, anatomy-class body B

C T. Rudy Steady but unspectacular C

RG K. DONNALLEY Wannstedt likes Beethoven, not (John) Bock C

RT T. Wade Massive rookie made huge impression in spring B

QB D. Huard Now. Jay Fiedler later. Option 3? Coming soon D

RB J.J. Johnson Tops long list of runners. But its a B list C

FB R. KONRAD Learning ropes. Problem is, his tutor is draftee D. Dyer C

Special Teams If Fish get close, PK O. Mare finishes (NFL-record 39 FGs) B

offensive grade c+

defense

DE K. MIXON Looks ready to bounce back from disappointing 99 C

DT T. Bowens Wont budge, wont back down B

DT D. Gardener Does anyone really expect his big payday will pay off big? C

DE J. Taylor Some still think hes tireless and multidimensional. Wrong C

LB R. Jones To know him (as Wannstedt does) is to like him, a little C

LB Z. Thomas Heart of a unit that sometimes needs defibrillation A

LB D. Rodgers Well, at least hes athletic C

CB P. Surtain The answer as nickel back, a question as starter C

CB S. Madison Last years Pro Bowl invite is start of trend A

SS B. Walker FYI: They didnt miss him much when he was in Seattle in 99 C

FS B. Marion Always around ball, rarely gets it C

Special Teams Punter M. Turk cant hurt C

Defensive grade BThe

Deal New twist in Miami: No one expects Fish to do anything

Dan Marino rushed for 87 yards in his 17-year career. Together, Damon Huard and Jay Fiedler had 150 yards in 99.

Team grade C

AFC CENTRAL

1 tenese titans

This Close

The last time we saw the Titans, Kevin Dyson was vainly reaching for the end zone in Super Bowl XXX IV. Tennessee will apply that technique to its offense this season. New O-coordinator Mike Heimerdinger will try to make his offense less reliant on RB Eddie Georges legs and TE Frank Wychecks hands by stretching things out. New WR Carl Pickens, a chronic complainer in Cincy, might stretch the Titans chemistry to the breaking point, but he did have two 100-yard games last season while all of Tennessees WRs managed just three. You can still bet youll see a whole lot more of EG left, EG right, EG up the middle. Its still a reach to imagine that Jevon Kearse played left end for the first time last season. The man had 141/2 sacks (a rookie record) and recovered a fumble for a TD. Hes only the most dominant D-player in the game. There was some off-season shuffling at LB, but the starters are solid; in fact, the Titans have a frisky front seven. But depth is a real problem in the secondary. Bet on opposing QBs to try to stretch these guys outjust like Kurt Warner did in January.

Player the word

offense

WR C. Pickens Gets flack for holding up Bengals, should get medal B

WR K. Dyson Probably used up his 15 minutes of fame in 99 C

TE F. Wycheck Funny, that lateral makes you forget his skills A

LT B. Hopkins A Nashville secret. Except to rival DEs B

LG B. Matthews Someday DLs wont have to deal with him A

C K. Long Hides lack of talent by making the plays C

RG B. Olson A puzzle piece on a team of puzzle pieces B

RT F. Miler No illegal procedure from St. Louis to Nashville C

QB S. McNair Not quite there. Neither is the Internet B

RB E. George There are better backs, but who cares? A

FB L. Neal Guess what hell be doing again this year? B

Special Teams A. Del Greco kicks better than he putts, which says something B

Offensive Grade B+

defense

DE J. Kearse Set rookie record for sacks and QBs peeing their pants A

DT J. Thornton Thank you, Jevon. Can I get you a beer? C

DT J. Fisk Or maybe a cigar? C

DE K. Holmes Whatever we can do for you, Mr. Kearse. Sir. C

LB K. Buluck Teammate Greg wont do him any favors C

LB R. Godfrey Ex-Poke will get noticed on higher-profile team B

LB E. Robinson Career-high 6 sacks (yes, thanks to you-know-who) B

CB D. Walker Big plays a specialty: making em, giving em up C

CB S. Role A Pro Bowler once he realizes its a 16-game season C

SS B. Bishop Four of five WRs recommend avoiding him. The ones who play A

FS M. Robertson Carries heavy load, until it snaps him in two B

Special Teams Coverage needs help; P C. Hentrich doesnt B

Defensive Grade B

The Deal Theyre so not going to SB. Course, we said that in 99, too

Since 1998 (including playoffs), the Titans are 172 vs. the AFC Central, just 710 vs. the rest of the league.

Team Grade B+

2 jacksonville jaguars

The Tightens?

Beat me once, shame on you, beat me twice, shame on me. Lay the smack down on me three times, the last at the AFC Championship Game, and Id better do some soul searching. The Jags still think theyre the class of the AFC, even after dropping three in a row to division rival Tennesseetheyre the only team to repeat as division champs the last two seasons. But can they learn not to self-destruct as they did last season (after 18 regular-season turnovers, six in the AFC title game)? Blame Tom Coughlin if you want: There isnt a coach more tightly wound, which may explain his 4 4 playoff record. The offense takes its cues from the coach: When everythings in place, it runs like a clock; when it isnt, it runs like that watch the guy on the corners selling. Bad news: Pro- Bowl FS Carnell Lake is lost for the season after foot surgery and Pro Bowl RT Leon Searcy is out until October (torn quad). Perennial IR member Fred Taylor is already nicked up. Good news: Veteran LB Hardy Nickerson should boost the defense. Keep Oct. 16 open. Thats when the Jags visit Tennessee.

Player the word

offense

WR J. Smith Yknow, he may be the most complete wideout in game A

WR K. McCardel Whats as fun as bookending Smith? Bookending McCardell B

TE K. Brady Update: a) he blocks and b) he isnt quite the bust we thought C

LT T. Boseli Q: If knee isnt right yet, when? A

LG B. Meester Okay, once again from the top I

C J. Wade We think he got hurt just to feel like he belongs C

RG B. STAI Trade reunites ex-Huskers Brendan and Zach Yee-hah C

RT Z. Wiegert Big guy, bigger shoes to fill (L. Searcy) C

QB M. Brunel Banged-up QB behind banged-up line. Ka-boom! B

RB F. Taylor And speaking of explosive. (His moves, not his knee) A

FB D. Shelton Solid, but no highlight star. Theyve got enough, anyway C

Special Teams KR R. Barlow has speed to burn B

Offensive Grade B+

defense

DE R. Wynn Effective, but not effective enough to rule out L. Smith C

DT G. Walker Back-to-back career years. Maybe we should pay attention B

DT S. Payne Runners dont fear him, but they also dont get through him C

DE T. Brackens Made Pro Bowl, now wants enough dough to buy Hawaii B

LB L. Marts Outside looking injust where he likes it B

LB H. Nickerson Standing reservation on the Big Island A

LB K. Hardy Old-fashioned backer. Translation: Plays all the downs. Well A

CB F. Bryant Exceeded expectations as rook. And there were plenty B

CB A. Beasley Not a lot of flash, but enough INTs C

SS D. Darius Maintains well. Covers better. Hits best B

FS R. STEWART Bigger news here is whose missing (C. Lake) C

Special Teams Too good at picking bad times for breakdowns C

Defensive Grade B

THE DEAL Petitioning to get Titans booted from league. It wouldnt help

In first four years, Jags held opponents to no offensive TDs in just three of 64 games. In 99, they didnt allow one in five games.

Team grade B+

3 BALTIMORE RAVENS

Blackbird Fly

they signed TEs Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates. They drafted RB Jamal Lewis, WR Travis Taylor and QB Chris Redman. Why so offensive lately? The Ravens want to close the gap between their 24th-ranked offense and second-ranked defense. That way they can close the gap between themselves and the Titans and Jaguars. Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh insists theres no shortcut to an elite offense. In the meantime, hes thankful to have a great D. It allows us to take more chances, he says. This is what hes talking about: The Ravens had 31 giveaways last year, but the defense had 31 takeaways. The best LB corps in the game is led by Ray Lewis, in camp a month early and thankful to be free of a murder charge, if not from trash-talk by opponents. Despite allowing just 76.9 ypg rushing last season, the main concern is the D-line. T Tony Siragusa, in the final year of his contract, is holding out for $2.5 million. And free agent pickup DT Sam Adams is struggling to shed some of his 330 pounds. Simple solution to both problems: Open the bank and close the buffet.

Player the word

offense

WR Q. Ismail From out of football to big-play threat B

WR Je. Lewis P. Johnson hurt; holdout T. Taylor hurt himself C

TE S. Sharpe Not bad when B. Coates is your backup A

LT J. Ogden More pancakes than IHOP A

LG E. Mulitalo Rookie makes it his job to lose C

C J. Mitchell Grunter; needs to learn a little grace C

RG M. Flynn Doesnt even grunt that well D

RT H. Swayne Has an impressive rsum, and a bum foot C

QB T. BANKs When do we see T. Dilfer? Ideally, never. Likely, November C

RB Ja. Lewis If he hates "fragile" tag, he should stop getting hurt B

FB S. Gash We like to think of him as Slam B

Special Teams PK M. Stover will be busier with PATs this season B

Offensive Grade B-

defense

R. Burnett Savvy vet comes off one of his better seasons C

DT S. Adams Smooth body, frothy head C

DT T. Siragusa Classic overachiever, nouveau grumbler C

DE M. McCrary Warning to QBs: Object may appear bigger than he is A

LB P. Boulware Nagging shoulder injury makes things a little fairer A

LB R. Lewis Hey, footballs easy A

LB J. Sharper What a difference a year makes B

CB C. McAlister Fine athlete, still learning (ask D. Starks what that gets you) B

CB D. STARKS Former Hurricane impressed with great summer showing B

SS K. Hering Big hitters first K.O.: A. Poindexter C

FS R. Woodson Looks like hes played FS his whole career (like, 90 years) A

Special Teams PK Richardson underrated by all but pinned-back Os C

DefensIVe GRADE A

THE DEAL If O doesnt collapse in sorry heap, they could be 00s Titans

TEs Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates, each named to the NFLs 1990s All-Decade Team, have combined for 1,042 receptions and 94 TDs in their careers.

Team grade B-

4 PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Curtain Call

When Bil Cowher came to Pittsburgh in 1992, he had problems at QB and O-line. Eight years, three AFC title games and one Super Bowl loss later, he has concerns at QB and O-line. The Steelers have once again placed their chips on No. 10 black. But come October, if Kordell Stewart keeps spinning more picks than TDs (last season: 6 TDs, 10 INTs), expect Cowher to start betting on rookie Tee Martin at QB. The Steelers are still shuffling O-linemen: As many as three new starters will surround Pro Bowler Dermontti Dawson. And theres plenty to worry about on the other side of the ball. Cowher needs to replace DE Orpheus Roye (free agency) and NT Joel Steed (retired). NT Kimo von Oelhoffen will help. A lot is expected of third-round pick NT Kendrick Clancy. Then theres the linebackers. Name two better than Levon Kirkland and Earl Holmes. Now, name the rest of them. The secondary still allows too many big plays and gives the pass rush virtually no time to get to the QB. If Cowher can fill those holes, hell be free to worry only about what he was worrying about eight years ago.

Player the word

offense

WR P. Bures Kordell might have tough time overthrowing him B

WR T. Edwards Kordell might have tough time overlooking him C

TE M. Bruener Hey, Coach, I can catch too C

LT W. Gandy Rams stunk when he was there; now Steelers do. Hmmm C

LG A. Faneca If only they ran every down C

C D. Dawson Future Hall of Famer runs on fumes. High octane fumes B

RG R. Tylski Can he replace B. Stai? (Its a rhetorical question) C

RT M. Smith Position should be marked RD, as in revolving door I

QB K. STewart Tick tick tick D

RB J. Bettis Fantasy players are stocking up on R. Huntley. Just sayin B

FB J. Witman We know fullbacks need to block. Why doesnt he? C

Special Teams Can PK K. Brown play quarterback? C

OFFENSIVE GRADE C

defense

DE C. Sulivan Now starting for the Orlando Predators D

NT K. von Oelhofen Dutch for If only J. Steeds knees had held up C

DE K. Henry Best of bunchlike being hippest presidential candidate C

LB J. Gildon Top sack threat. Again. No one cares. Again C

LB L. Kirkland Always coming off an If hed only lose weight season B

LB E. Holmes Best LB two years straight means hes best LB, period B

LB J. Porter Super fast and explosive; at least Cowher hopes so B

CB C. Scott He was hot in 97. Only now regaining form B

CB D. Washington All those potential INTs, all those actual completions C

SS L. Flowers Shouldnt be teams best DB. Is B

FS S. Shields Now starting for the Toronto Argonauts D

Special Teams P J. Miller heads well-oiled unit. A novelty in Steeltown B

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

The Deal Improved just enough to finish behind Jags, Titans and Ravens

Steelers are 28 in their last 10 home games; they were 16355 in their first 218 games at Three Rivers.

Team grade C

5 CIncinati Bengals

Kitty cats

The new millennium finds the Bengals playing home games at Paul Brown Stadium. Maybe the spirit of the man who invented pro football will exorcise the demons spooking these Cats. So far, 2000s big story has been the exit of disgruntled but dependable WR Carl Pickens. Deep threat Darnay Scott (68 catches, 1,022 yards, 7 TDs in 99) was tabbed to fill the void, but a fractured tibia crushed any chance of that. Now, second-year QB Akili Smith must look to blue-chipper Peter Warrick to play the go-to role. On the bright side, RB Corey Dillon is in good spirits after signing a one-year deal. But the D will be haunted by the loss of DT Kimo von Oelhoffen, who took his four sacks to Pittsburgh. LB Takeo Spikes, tops on the team with 106 tackles, is one of the leagues most underrated players. But theres not enough on either side of the line to prevent early-season games against the Jags, Ravens and Titans from starting another depressing tradition. Good thing theres an expansion team named after Brown in the division.

Player the word

offense

WR P. Warick Problem child? No. Problem for corners? You betcha! A

WR J. Hundon D. Scotts injury is his gainbut everyone elses loss D

TE T. McGee All he needs to get to the Pro Bowl is the ball C

LT R. Jones Cost a lot to keep him. Question: Whyd he want to stay? B

LG M. ODwyer Bit of a bully. If only hed leave it on the field C

C R. Braham Inspires respect, if not fear C

RG B. DeMarco Kinda like China: huge chunk of humanity, lots of potential C

RT W. Anderson Loaded. With talent, with pie, now with cash B

QB A. Smith Remember what we thought Kordell would be? C

RB C. Dilon Sounds righta head case carrying the offense B

FB C. Groce Kinda like Bulgaria (FYI: the black hole of Central Europe) C

Special Teams Full house: KRs T. Mack, C. Yeast and Warrick, too B

Offensive grade C+

defense

DE V. Booker Tied for best DL on team C

DT O. Gibson See above C

DT T. Barndt Ibid. C

DE J. Copeland Opcit. C

LB S. Foley Tough at times. What times? Like every third game C

LB B. Simons Team leader in tackles in 99 should repeat B

LB T. Spikes Move outside could mean trip to Hawaii A

CB T. Carter Whats a former first-rounder look like? Not this C

CB A. Hawkins Hard work being worst in this backfield. Nice job D

SS C. Hal Strong showing at FS earns chance for humbling at SS C

FS D. Wiliams Back after four-year leave. Which makes him older C

Special Teams They need T. Tupa. Theyve got B. Costello C

DEfensive grade C

The Deal Some talent, too much Coslet

Since 1991, the Bengals are a ghastly 43101. Damned slow starts: Cincy is just 1260 in the first halves of seasons. Thats why their last playoff game was in 1990.

Team grade D+

6 cleveland browns

NESTING

The Brow nies went 08 at home last year, including a 43-0 shellacking by the Steelers in Week 1, and still coach Chris Palmer is furnishing his house. Thats gutsy. QB Tim Couch (223 of 399 for 2,447 yards, 15 TDs) needs some breaking in, but hes gonna be in the Browns living room for many years. But what about those other pieces? Couch has two solid end tables in WR Kevin Johnson (66 catches, 986 yards, 8 TDs to lead the team) and third-round pick Ja Jaun Dawson. But theres a glaring vacancy where the dinner table should be. RB Terry Kirby is good (452 yards in 99) but hes no bread-and-butter back. Rookie Travis Prentice, a punishing 5'11", 225-pounder, will settle in at that spot for a long look. DE Courtney Brown is big enough to fill up the den by himself. Hell raise the volume in Cleveland with his Bruce Smith quickness and Reggie White strength. Im going to do whatever I can to get the job done, he says. Maybe he can help Palmer tackle the upstairs next year, because theres a lot of heavy lifting to be done: The Browns were ranked last in offense and in defense last year.

Player the word

offense

WR K. Johnson N o reason to think hes not like those other Cuse WRs B

WR J. Dawson Third-rounder was talk of camp C

TE A. Shea You know, like the stadium (but with way fewer fans) D

LT R. Oben Just like Pops: awesome set of tools, and nothing works D

LG J. Pyne Dad, Grandpa were NFLers. Which is cool. So well be nice C

C D. Wohlabaugh Solid, which on this line is spectacular B

RG E. Lindsay T he John Goodman of Cleveland: big and versatile C

RT S. Zahursky I f only he battled DLs as hard as he does for his job C

QB T. Couch T hey said he was best of class? They were wrong. For now C

RB E. Rhett T hat guy who just passed you is T. Prentice D

FB M. Edwards One day, the Rathman comparisons will end. Like today C

Special Teams Not sure about P. Dawson, but why do they need a PK anyway? I

Offensive Grade C-

defense

C. Brow n T hey call him Quiet Storm. Perfect is more like it A

DT O. Roy e Expected to bring Steeler spirit here. Thats good? B

DT S. Colinet Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! D

DE K. McKenzie Fast, but fragile C

LB R. Abdullah L ot of tackles, but too many five yards downfield C

LB W. Rainer 191 stops means he was everywhere, or rest of D was nowhere C

LB J. Miller On a team that mattered more, hed matter less. A bit less B

CB C. Fuller H its like a tank. Alas, covers like one, too C

CB D. McCutcheon D ad was also NFLer, but wed be nice anyway B

SS M. Smith A few more games like late last year, and were sold C

FS P. Ellsworth Other guys on the team bag INTs too. Just not very often C

Special Teams C. Gardocki is fine, until his leg falls off C

Defensive grade CTHE?DEAL

Improved, but still a year away from catching Cincy

Browns used eight different starters on the D-line in 1999. Five of them are no longer with the team, and only DT Stalin Colinet is expected to be a 2000 starter.

Team grade D

AFC WEST

1 Oakland Raiders

NOW!

In the up-for-grabs AFC West, where three games separated first from last in 1999, the Raiders look great ... on paper. And even they are tired of talking about potential. (Were tired of hearing about it.) Missing the playoffs will be unacceptable. Why? Because QB Rich Gannon is now comfortable running coach Jon Grudens offense. Tyrone Wheatley (the punisher) and Napoleon Kaufman (the darter) give Oakland a great RB combo. Tim Brown finally has company at WR, where rookies Jerry Porter and Marcus Knight are making noise and veteran James Jett is having his best camp yet. The O-line is deep and ornery, as is the D-line. And the secondary, with star Charles Woodson, has enough starting DBs for two teams. The new faces at LB (Eric Barton and Travian Smith) look susceptible until you realize Greg Biekert is still the man in the middle. But who will most help the Raiders move from promise to pay dirt? Try rookie PK Sebastian Janikowski, wholl win his share of close games. One more thing: T he Raiders play just three teams that made the playoffs last season.

Player the word

offense

WR T. Brown Thought to be on the downside, but someone lied A

WR J. Jett Still pretty fast, but bigger question than answer D

TE R. Dudley Prototypical size and speed, inconsistent results C

LT M. Stinchcomb Shoulder surgery shelved him for rookie season C

LG S . Wisniewski N o longer an All-Star, but we dare you to tell him B

C B. Robins N ear the top of the short list of the best centers A

RG M. Collins Makes switch from LT to RG, but hes not happy D

RT L . Kennedy Finally known more for his blocking than size B

QB R. Gannon We knew he was headed to Pro Bowl last August B

RB T. Wheatley Teams best reclamation project in a long time B

FB J. Ritchie S till needs to hone blocking skills, but capable receiver C

Special Teams PK S. Janikowski gets kicks on and off field B

OFFENSIVE Grade B

defense

DE T. Bryant More complete than competitor R. Upshaw C

DT D. Russell Didnt always play like AFCs best DT last season A

DT G. Jackson U p-and-comer made R. Maryland expendable C

DE L. Johnstone Undersized DL who makes beeline to quarterback C

LB E. Alexander Flip a coin with T. Smith. How about 2 of 3? D

LB G. Biekert Man with the football usually stops here B

LB E. Barton Made impression in limited action a year ago C

CB C. Woodson Will match up on teams best wideout. He cant wait A

CB E. Allen S till solid, but ex-Bronco T. James waiting in wings B

SS M. Pope Journeyman defender running out of places to play C

FS A. Dorsett S on of legend now must replace the late E. Turner C

Special Teams Rookie P S. Lechler should aid coverages cause C

DEFENSIVE Grade C+

THE DEAL Miss the playoffs with this team and feel Als wrath

Thirteen of the Raiders 16 games were decided by seven points or less last season. Oakland was just 58.

Team grade B+

2 Denver Broncos

COMEBACKS

THE?FACT that Olandis Gary (1,159 yards) is second string says it all about Terrell Davis comeback from knee surgery. The fact that, despite Gary, the Broncos finished 610 says the running game wasnt the problem. QB and the secondary were. Brian Griese has outplayed Gus Frerotte and spared Mike Shanahan the burden of mishandling another QB controversy. But hell have to do a better job of spreading the ball around to get this offense rolling. Dwayne Carswell is a big-play target at TE, while injuries have given veterans Andre Reed and Robert Brooks shots at reserve WR roles. The D-backfield is improved, with Jimmy Spencer at CB and Billy Jenkins the new SS. D-coordinator Greg Robinson likes to attack, and free agent DEs Kavika Pittman and Lester Archambeau provide him speed and nastiness. Problem areas: OLB, where John Mobleys return (knee) has hit snags, and leadershipno Elway, no Shannon Sharpe. Shanahans message to his rebounding team is a simple one: Every time we go out there we try to get better. He says that every year. Guess no one was listening in 99.

Player the word

offense

WR E. McCaffrey Premier possession receiver with quickness, not speed B

WR R. Smith Big-play wideout still lacks concentration on occasion B

TE D. Carswell Key position in offense has lost its Sharpe-ness D LT T. Jones Can play either side and usually does it well A

LG M. Schlereth After 27 surgeries, plans on dedicating body to Lego B

C T. Nalen February trip to Honolulu becoming a pleasant habit A

RG D. Neil S crappy youngster fits the bill but could use some work C

RT M. Lepsis One-time tight end still going to offensive tackle school C

QB B. Griese Time to shine, or its In Gus [Frerotte] We Trust C

RB T. Davis Hes back, and now he has O. Gary with him A

FB H. Griffith Good receiver, adequate blocker. Anything else? C

Special Teams PK J. Elam hits from all distances, including Hawaii A

Offensive Grade B+

defense

DE M. Tanuvasa Broncos in good shape with L. Archambeau in reserve C

DT K. Traylor One-time linebacker still has a little Butkus in him B

DT T. Pryce ll-Pro menace at an all-county price A

DE K. Pittman E x-Cowboy looks to revive career; did it ever start? D

LB B. RomanowsKI Wily veteran prefers Flintstones over Chocks B

LB A. Wilson Young fireplug has bright future in the middle C

LB J. Mobley Second-most costly knee injury in Denver last season B

CB R. Crockett N ever an all-star but always seems to get the job done B

CB J. Spencer Solid preseason makes him D. Carters replacement C

SS B. Jenkins Busy last year with Rams and may have to do even more C

FS E. Brow n Made far too many tackles last season when healthy C

Special Teams P T. Rouen out-kicked coverage too often C

DEFENSIVE Grade B

The Deal With a healthy Terrell, team will rebound very nicely

The Broncos are 384 over the past three seasons when they total more rushing attempts than their opponent, but just 112 when they dont.

Team grade B

3 San Diego Chargers

RILEYVILE

MIKE RILEY is the kind of coach players want to play forof their 13 unrestricted free agents, 11 re-signed with the team. Riley doesnt scream, cuss or disrespect his players. The coachs good cheer and offensive mind also swayed WR Curtis Conway to sign as a free agent. Conway fills the teams desperate need for speed at that position. Another gaping hole was the lack of gaping holes produced by an O-line that didnt provide much pass protection, either (46 sacks allowed). Veteran G Kevin Gogan will help. Powering a running game that struck for a mere three yards per carry will be 507 pounds of TB in Robert Chancey and Jermaine Fazande. QB Ryan Leaf has looked good in camp, but his sore right shoulder (torn labrum in 99) is still a cause for concern. Jim Harbaugh will start. The D-line is still great vs. the run, so-so vs. the pass. The LBs still have Junior Seau, and the secondary, when healthy, hits as hard as any in the game. At 88, the Chargers just missed the playoffs last season, but may not get any closer in 2000. Memo to Mike Riley: Keep on smiling, pal.

Player the word

offense

WR C. Conway T hey needed speed, they got a burner. Everyones thrilled B

WR J. Graham H e can catch. Now he has must learn to, um, score B

TE F. Jones N FLs most athletic TEwhen he shows up C

LT B. Coleman Hes one of several on this line who get the job done C

LG R. ROUNDtree Its Raleigh, not Richard ... Shut your mouth! C

C R. Fortin See B. Coleman C

RG K. Gogan New arrival is immediately the best. Uh-oh B

RT V. Parker T he skills, but not the head, to be one of NFLs best tackles C

QB R. leaf Jim Harbough is hurtin and Moreno aint Moses C

RB J. Fazande es big, strong and can move. But for 16 games? Please D

FB F. McCrary One day theyll actually let him carry the ball. Maybe C

Special Teams As good a PK as J. Carney is, thats how bad return game is D

OFFENSIVE Grade C

DE A. Fontenot Efficient pro, with Darren MicKell around to help B

DT J. Williams Theyre going to let him start. They wont regret it C

DT J. Parrella Offensive linemen know who he is C

DE R. Johnson Step 1: Rush passer. Check. Step 2: Stop run. Check B

LB G. Dixon Makes QBs nervous. Makes RBs giddy D

LB O. Ruff With E. Hill out for year, hes in the spotlight. Yikes I

LB J. Seau Pro Bowl wouldnt be same without him. And wont have to be A

CB D. Lewis When your wheels go, it helps to be savvy C

CB D. Jenkins Covers like a blanket. If only blankets could pick off a few B

SS R. Harrison T hats his picture by hearing footsteps in dictionary A

FS M. Dumas Steady. Translation: Rookie R. Beckett has a shot C

Special Teams P D. Bennett is as good as it gets; coverage isnt C

DEFENSIVE Grade B

Defense

The Deal Another improvement story that wont show up in standings

Do the bad math: Over the past two seasons Chargers QBs have thrown just 22 touchdown passes, while totaling 58 interceptions and 32 fumbles.

Team grade B-

4 Seattle Seahawks

ROADIES

IN?GREEN?BAY they named a street for Mike Holmgren. I n Seattle, the second-year coach is teaching the Seahawks all about Holmgren Way, as in, ... or the highway. Holmgren broke up a 97 playoff team that faded at the end of last season. Gone are WRs Joey Galloway and Mike Pritchard, O-linemen Kevin Glover and Brian Habib, D-linemen Phillip Daniels and Sam Adams, LB Darrin Smith and FS Darryl Williams. Other than Daniels, who bolted to Chicago, Holmgren doesnt regret the losses. A strong running game features Ricky Watters and rookie Shaun Alexander, which takes pressure off maturing QB Jon Kitna. An aggressive D features the pass-rushing skills of DE Michael Sinclair and LBs Anthony Simmons and Chad Brown. Notable S e a h a w k s acquisitions: S Reggie Tongue and a quality draft that could produce two starters by next year. A tougher schedule could mean an extra L or two this season, but Holmgren concedes nothing. We will be better, he says. Or else its the Holmgren Highway.

Player the word

offense

WR D. Mayes T heir go-to guy. Just not that often C

WR S. Dawkins Holmgrens looking hard for speed. Keep looking, Mike C

TE C. Fauria Some guys play better than they should. Hes one B

LT W. Jones First Pro Bowl in 99. Wont be his last A

LG P. Kendall Underrated blocker feels unloved. Awww C

C C. Gray Well, at least hes healthy C

RG F. Wedderburn Well, at least hes big I

RT T. Weiner S till waiting on first-round pick C. McIntosh D

QB J. Kitna Pressured by blitzes in 99. Now add B. Huard to mix C

RB R. Watters How can someone so good be so insecure? B

FB M. Strong Aptly named, if only as a blocker C

Special Teams Holmgren wants speed. KR C. Rogers has plenty A

Offensive Grade C

defense

DE M. Sinclair Dear diary: Heres hoping I can forget last year B

DT R. Parker Some guys play better than they should. Not him D

DT C. Kennedy Older. Slower. So how come hes still so good? A

DE L . King A QB-hunting tiger, an RB-stopping pussycat C

LB C. Brow n New side, but anywhere you put him hes dominating A

LB G. Koonce A t the very least, hes sturdier than D. Myles C

LB A. Simmons Move outside makes flimsy body less of a liability B

CB S . Springs I f you cant find him, look in the end zone A

CB W. Williams Speedy, but Holmgren likes em taller. Picky, picky C

SS R. Tongue U nit needed a hard hitter. Unit now has a hard hitter B

FS J. Bellamy If only he were a little scarier C

Special Teams Like they draw it up: J. Feagles punts, coverage tackles A

Defensive Grade B

THEDEAL Good enough for the playoffs again? Uh, probably not

Including playoffs, Seattle QB Jon Kitna tossed 16 TDs and 6 INTs in the first nine games (72), but finished with 8 TDs and 12 INTs in the final seven games (16).

Team grade C+

5 Kansas City Chiefs

QUIET

Its unusually quiet around the Chiefs since the death of LB Derrick Thomas. The three-yards-and-still-short-of-a-first-down offense makes little noise on its best days. The defense, while good, will miss Thomas as much for his leadership as for his big plays. OLB Donnie Edwards is now the teams best player, and his D will have to keep K.C. in games. The D-line is led by tackles Chester McGlockton and Dan Williams, while Pro Bowler James Hasty and Cris Dishman anchor the secondary. On offense, QB Elvis Grbac will call the same conservative plays that the Chiefs have run since the Carter administration. TE Tony Gonzalez will be featured again; hell combine with WR Derrick Alexander for most of the catches. The Chiefs havent had a 1,000-yard rusher since Christian Okoye in 1991, and starting HB Mike Cloud isnt one either; expect a committee that includes Tony Richardson and Donnell Bennett to get carries. If the Chiefs dont find a vocal leader to match those noisy fans at Arrowhead, they could go quietly into the AFC West cellar.

Player the word

offense

WR D. Alexander Strong start in 99, not sure of finish. (Whered he go?) C

WR S. MORRIS Rookie signed late but made big impression C

TE T. Gonzalez Pro Bowler had 11 of teams 21 receiving TDs A

LT J. Tait N o holdout means no excuses for former first-rounder C

LG D. Szott Bribed to stay. Money well spent B

C T. Grunhard Pro Bowl voters must have been preoccupied first nine years A

RG W. Shields One more big season prices him out of Chiefs range A

RT V. Riley Looks the part, but can he act it? C

QB E. Grbac Better than most QBs. Of course, most of them play on losers C

RB M. Cloud Think of position as Survivor, and hes first voted off island D

FB T. Richardson Tenacious blocker waiting for someone to hit the hole B

Special Teams P. Stoyanovich kicks for contract. T. Sauerbrun for distance C

Offensive Grade C

defense

DE E. Hicks I f only they gave points for just showing up C

DT C. McGlockton Yes, he used to be great on Raiders. Move on B

DT D. Williams Yes, he used to be mediocre on Broncos. Move on C

DE D. Clemons Vikes may have given up on him just a bit too soon C

LB L. Bush Job you dont want: replacing a legend C

LB M. Patton Plays every down. No really, every down C

LB D. Edwards D o they recount Pro Bowl votes? A

CB C. Dishman S lowing down just enough to open door for E. Warfield C

CB J. Hasty H e could teach Coverage 101 A

SS L. Atkins Theyll miss R. Tongue, because WRs crossing middle wont C

FS J. Woods Will make them miss Tongue a little less B

Special Teams Sauerbruns main job, of course, is to rescue punting game B

Defensive Grade B

THE DEAL One giant hole at teams core; lots of small ones everywhere else

Chiefs TO differential was best in league in 99 (plus-21) and in all of the 90s (an amazing plus-128).

Team grade C+

NFC EAST

1 washington redskins

capital gains

After an off-season shopping spree worthy of Donald Trump, Redskins owner Dan Snyder will settle for nothing less than the Super Bowl. To prop up the leagues 30thranked D, the Skins signed Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Mark Carrier, grabbed stud LB LaVar Arrington with the No. 2 overall pick and imported Ray Rhodes as defensive coordinator. To bolster an already explosive offense, Washington took OT Chris Samuels with the No. 3 overall pick and signed nomadic Jeff George as QB insurance. The highprofile maneuvering has pumped up the rabid D.C. fansthey spent $10 a pop just to watch training campand with good reason. Brad Johnson is coming off a career year (4,005 yards, 24 TDs), Stephen Davis led the NFC in rushing (1,405 yards) and Michael Westbrook (65 receptions) finally arrived. Rhodes has plenty to work with, especially if he can light a fire beneath underachieving linemen Dan Wilkinson and Dana Stubblefield. The overbearing Snyder has been demanding results ever since he bought the team in spring of 99. This time, no one can blame him.

Player the word

Offense

WR M. Westbrook Okay, sometimes fifth time is a charm B

WR A . Connell Or fourth C

TE S. Alexander H as the hands and is willing to learn how to block B

LT C. Samuels Job was his to lose before he was even drafted A

LG K. Sims Older than in 99, when he was too old. Still blocks, though C

C J. LEUWENBURG Reliable C. Raymer went down mid-August. Ouch C

RG T. Johnson Who kidnapped the old (lazy) Tr? Who cares? B

RT J. Jansen Ask M. Strahan about him. Then duck A

QB B. Johnson Pro Bowler has earned right to screw up. Once B

RB S. Davis Which comes first: major payday or major injury? Pick em B

FB L. Centers Like a big-screen TV: More of a luxury than a necessity C

Special Teams Deion in for B. Mitchell looks like a wash. Maybe B

Offensive Grade B+

defense

DE M. Coleman Good enough to have to be asked to give spot to B. Smith B

DT D. Wilkinson Lets just call him Big Duddy and get over it D

DT D. Stubblefield I f Rhodes cant get him going well, well find out C

DE B. Smith Can a rep sack a QB? Definitely not more than 12 times B

LB L. Arington Next LT?just needs to be first LA A

LB D. Smith Half full: veteran leadership. Half empty: tired stopgap D

LB S. Barber Team hopes last years best backer hasnt topped out C

CB C. Bailey Tis better to play with Deion than be compared with him B

CB D. Sanders Like a classic Elvis 45: slightly worn. Backed by D. Green A

SS S. Shade Tough run-stopper, so at least hes got something to do B

FS M. Carrier Reminds this D that hitting is still part of the game C

Special Teams T . Barnhardt puts em high enough for even this unit to cover C

Defensive Grade B

THE DEAL Hard to root for D. Snyders team. Harder to beat em. Damn

The Skins have 15 No.1 draft picks on their roster, including four who were picked first overall: Irving Fryar, Bruce Smith, Jeff George and Dan Wilkinson.

Team grade A

2 dallas cowboy s

training

ANOTHER SEASON, another coach. This time its former defensive coordinator Dave Campothe teams third head man in four seasonswho will try to return the Cowboys to glory. Because Campo will put more emphasis on the passing game, Troy Aikman will be a little less grumpy. Rocket Ismail and Joey Galloway could be the fastest pair of WRs in the game, and Dallas brought in veteran TE Jackie Harris to give Troy another safety valve. Emmitt Smith proved he wasnt done last season, and Pro Bowler Larry Allen anchors an offensive line that allowed just 24 sacks. Campo must address an aging secondary that was 13th against the pass. Of course, getting more pressure on opposing QBs would helpthe Cowboys ranked tied for 23rd in sacks with 35. The good news: Greg Ellis, the teams best DE, returns after missing the stretch run with a broken leg. The bad: The Boys are counting on contributions from old unreliable Leon Lett and new unreliable Dimitrius Underwood. Overall, theres enough talent here to make a playoff run. Maybe even enough to give Campo a second term.

Player the word

offense

WR J. Galloway Lets all agree to forget last year and move on A

WR R. Ismail S till improving, which says as much about past as future B

TE D. LaFleur Unless they need a reception, then its J. Harris B

LT F. Adams Man-mountain keeps getting better. Scary B

LG L . Allen S till best in Big D. Hell, still best in NFL A

C M. Stepnoski Some thought he was through. Rest werent so dumb B

RG S. Page Talent? Yes. Judgment? Well get back to you C

RT E. Williams Retiring. Translation: I hate training camp B

QB T. Aikman I f hed stop whining, we could focus on how good he is B

RB E . Smith Company you keep: Only W. Payton has more carries A

FB R. Thomas N o Moose, but hes got enough animal in him C

Special Teams Want to be the Cowboy kicker? D

OffensIVE GRADe B+

defense

DE E. Ekuban D . Underwood waits in wings, which is scary for everyone C

DT A. Spellman Crazy? Yeah, like a fox. Or at least a decent DT C

DT C. Hennings Anyone remember what happened to that Lett guy? B

DE G. Ellis T heir best lineman, presuming his leg heals B

LB J. Bowden Beats out D. Hambrick in close battle. For now B

LB D. Nguyen Special teams ace cracks lineup. Told you so C

LB D. Coakley Speediest LB in NFL. Just thought youd like to know B

CB K. LARRIMORE Rookie on the spot replaces hurting K. Smith I

CB R. McNeil Kind of an every-other-year guy. Last year: Not bad C

SS D. Woodson Slipping, so hes no longer best in NFL. Just one of em A

FS G. Teague Arms and legs are iffy, nose for football isnt C

Special Teams Want to be the Cowboy punter? D

DefensIVE GRADe C+

The Deal Wont catch Skins. Will give them a playful little nudge

G Larry Allen and T Erik Williams kept one Cowboy tradition alive last season: at least two offensive linemen in the Pro Bowl in each of the past eight years.

Team grade B-

3 philadelphia eagles

MAC ATTACK

DONOVAN McNABB still remembers the boos when the Eagles called his name instead of Ricky Williams as the second pick in the 99 draft. So its no surprise that he demanded Eagles receivers return to Philly to work out in the off-season. McNabb will get the chance to prove himself this season, and if the the strong-armed QB and his receivers can click, the Eagles will make more than a few teams nervous. With WRs Charles Johnson and Torrance Small starting to show their age, Philly drafted Todd Pinkston (second round) and Gari Scott (fourth) to pump up a passing game that ranked dead last a year ago. Even a slight upgrade would do wonders for Duce Staley, who gained 1,273 yards, seventh in the league, but wore down by seasons end. They also signed Jon Runyan, who will pair with Tra Thomas to give Philly one of the top young tackle duos in the game. Defensively, No. 1 pick Corey Simon should improve the leagues 28th-ranked run defense, and the secondary remains one of the leagues best. Theres enough talent here to keep the Eagles in most gamesand give McNabb an opportunity to win them.

Player the word

offense

WR C. Johnson Peyton-Marvin; Kurt-Isaac; Donovan-Charles. Could happen C

WR T. Small Until they figure this out, theyre playing 10-on-11 D

TE C. Lewis Make that 9-on-11 D

LT T. Thomas If we had a buck for every pound over effective he is C

LG D. Brzezinski Theyll keep picking OLs until they pick more like him B

C B. Miller A bargain compared to departed S. Everritt C

RG J. Mayberry S till being shuffled. Trust us, there arent enough spots D

RT J. Runyan Leaving Titans doesnt make him greedy. Or a winner B

QB D. McNabb First to backstretch in Best of QB Class of 99 Stakes B

RB D . Staley Best back on the mainland last February B

FB C. Martin Standing in way of D. Staley-S. Pritchett reunion C

Special Teams Old nemesis KR B. Mitchell now on their side B

Offensive Grade C+

defense

DE G. JEFFERSON Hes there to get RBs. M. Mamulas around for QBs D

DT H. Thomas What is it with Eagles named Thomas and buffet tables? C

DT C. SIMON Ghost of J. Brown? Meet your exorcist A

DE H. DOUGLAS 14 1/2 sacks the last two years. Too bad 12 were in 98 C

LB C. Emons Steeler LBs have rep, but not because of guys like Carlos C

LB J. Trotter In 99, lucky to have job. In 00, Philly lucky to have him B

LB B. Gardner Ex-MLB learns outside game. Next lesson: punt coverage D

CB T. Vincent Pro Bowler, and not just for nabbing 25% of teams INTs A

CB B. Taylor Imposing size seems to mean more of him to put on IR C

SS D. Moore If life were a cartoon, hed have arrows flashing at him D

FS B. Dawkins At least when Moore gets burned, he makes burner pay B

Special Teams S . Landeta not getting older; coverage not getting better C

Defensive Grade C

The Deal Beyond the Sweet, we have the Eagles this Sunday stage

Hows this for a turnaround? The Eagles forced an NFL-best 46 turnovers in 99 after having a league-low 17 in 98. Philly had at least two takeaways in 11 games.

Team grade C+

4 new york giants

BLUE SKY

For the first time since taking over in 1997, Giants coach Jim Fassel isnt questioning whether his opening day QB will be leading the troops in December. Kerry Collins rescued his career and the New York passing game last season, giving Big Blue its best QB since Phil Simms left for the broadcast booth. And Collins has a pair of solid receivers in Amani Toomer (79 receptions, 1,183 yards) and Ike Hilliard (72, 996). Unfortunately for Fassel, who wanted a long-term contract but got a one-year extension, plenty of questions remain. Can a line with four new starters jell quickly enough to improve the leagues 24th-ranked running game? If not, No. 1 pick Ron Dayne will go to waste. Can Jessie Armstead and former Canes teammate Micheal Barrow revive a defense that collapsed a year ago? Not unless Michael Strahan and Cedric Jones reverse the slide that dropped New York from first to tied for 27th in sacks. And can a healthy Jason Sehorn plug a leaky secondary? There was plenty of griping when things went sour last season. If Fassel cant find answers, at least he wont have to listen to it much longer.

Player the word

offense

WR A. Tomer You know, maybe hell be an NFLer after all B

WR I . Hilliard T hey need deep threat, and sometimes hes it. Sometimes C

TE H. Cross Blocker gets to catch toothen P. Mitchell will come back C

LT L. Brow n 107-year-old will bring spunk to line C

LG G. Parker Underrated vet plays everywhere. LG will do for now B

C D. Zeigler Cant play everywhere. Luckily, hes back where he can C

RG R. Stone Lunchpail Larry of the Meadowlands C

RT L. Petitgout Note to N.Y. fans: Try pretending this is his rookie year D

QB K. Collins Actually, fairly mobile when he leaves baggage at home C

RB R. Dayne Hell win Rookie of the Year or break down trying B

FB G. Comella Injuries, not Comella, forced C. Way into front office I

Special Teams PK B. Daluiso back from knee injury. Alert the media C

Offensive Grade C+

defense

DE M. Strahan Some think he didnt earn Pro Bowl. Theyre right B

DT C. Peter Once part of the problem, now part of the solution C

DT K. Hamilton Looked like future star. Now looks like future sub C

DE C. Jones Never looked like future star. Still doesnt C

LB B. Short Might end up being best of this Giants draft C

LB M. Barrow Wreaked havoc with J. Armstead (at U. Miami8 years ago) B

LB J. Armstead Soon, theyll call roll: Carson, Banks, LT , Armstead A

CB D. Thomas Perhaps hell be big surprise. Perhaps well be X-Men C

CB J. Sehorn Sure looks like a Pro Bowler. (Hi, Angie!) C

SS S. Garnes Doesnt look like Pro Bowler. But a lot closer than Sehorn B

FS S. Williams H as done bit of everything okay. Must do one thing well I

Special Teams P B. Maynard took big step in 99. Backward C

defensive Grade B

The Deal Second-best team ... in the Meadowlands

Giants QBs have thrown 90 TD passes in their last 96 regular-season games (1994-99). Thats 108 fewer than Brett Favre has tossed over the same period.

Team grade C

5 arizona cardinals

snake eyes

Instead of being the breakout team that we and everyone else predictedwas that really Jake the Snake on our 99 cover?the Cardinals simply broke down. And no ones sure if the once-promising pieces can be put back together. More than 10 key players went down with injuries last year, including Plummer, whose hand, rib and hip problems limited him to 12 games. Plummer is back, but he still misses pass-catching FB Larry Centersthe Cards unwisely let him leave a year ago. Thomas Jones mightve been the best back in the draft, but the line is still mediocre. And the D-line, a major part of this teams brief revival, is now a major concern. Eric Swann is gone, Andre Wadsworth spent the summer rehabbing his knee, Rashod Swinger wont suit up until midseason and franchise player Simeon Rice wants out of town. The defensive secondary is a bright spot with perennial Pro Bowler Aeneas Williams back to shut down top receivers. And maybe Jake can pump some life back into an offense that finished 30th in the league in scoring. But dont expect any Cards to show up on many covers this time around.

Player the word

offense

WR R. Moore Even after pair of injury-plagued seasons, the best they got B

WR F. Sanders Even math-challenged can see 1:79 TD:catch ratio stinks B

TE T. Hardy A t least he makes it easier to watch comeback of C. Gedney D

LT L.J. Shelton No holdout. No rookie jitters. No excuses B

LG M. Joyce May not get nod over C. Dishman. Should C

C M. Grutt adauria From St. Louis to Cardinals. Still sounds weird C

RG L. Holmes Not healthy often. Not good when he is D

RT A. Clement Dependable. You know, like a girl with personality C

QB J. Plummer Who said this guy was the next great QB, anyway? D

RB M. Pittm an No.1 in rotation. Doesnt say much for No.2 (T. Jones) D

FB J. Makov icka I n no rush to make them forget L. Centers C

Special Teams C. Blanchard, C. Jacke. See anyone who makes a difference? C

OffensIVE GRADE C

defense

DE A. Wadsworth Another summer, another rehab C

DT T. McCoy V. Tobin loves him. Hopefully, well soon learn why C

DT M. Smith Another summer, another contract squabble D

DE S. Rice Lots of sacks. Could have learned to tackle at camp B

LB J. RUTLIDGE Position is a train wreck. Try not to watch D

LB R. McKinnon Notched 223 tackles in 99. That include practice? C

LB R. Fredrickson Likes to cover. Could do without the hitting C

CB A. Williams Six Pro Bowls in a row. Do we hear seven? Seven A

CB T. KNIGHT A very slight thumbs-up over video hound C. Chavous B

SS P. Tillman T. Bennetts rehab has him shaking. But nobody else D

FS K. Lassiter Only 2 INTs last year has 98s eight looking flukish C

Special Teams P S. Player isnt much of one; coverage unit doesnt always C

DefensIVE GRADE C

The Deal Once-promising team in more familiar position: trouble

The Cardinals got on the scoreboard first in just 4 of 16 games last season, a big reason they were outscored 118-19 in the opening quarter.

Team grade D+

NF CENTRAL

1 tampa bay buccaners

Homeys

Remember THE 1999 Rams call to arms Bring Georgia to Georgia? Well, Catchphrase 2000 might well be Get Tampa to Tampa. The Bucs lost last seasons NFC title game because of two offensive weaknesses: the line (five sacks, including a crusher on the final drive) and red zone inefficiency. So GM Rich McKay addressed these issues Pro Bowl-style: He traded a pair of picks to the Jets for WR Keyshawn Johnson, whose 31 TDs in four years mean instant red zone credibility. And he signed C Jeff Christy and G Randall McDaniel from Minnesota, which will give RB Warrick Dunn room to run and QB Shaun King time to think. Tampas calling card is still D, and the Bucs have the NFCs best unit, led by Defensive Player of the Year Warren Sapp. LB Hardy Nickerson (now a Jag) will be missed, but the Bucs are high on Jamie Duncans playmaking ability. Recent champs (Rams, Broncos, Packers) have been content to outscore opponents. Tampa thinks D first. The Bucs have improved more than the rest of the Central. Fans can start thinking about a few extra home gamesin January.

Player the word

offense

WR K. Johnson Wont drop passes and will throw the damn block A

WR J. Gren If a WR is open downfield but his QB cant reach him ... ? C

TE D. Moore Dont ask him to block C

LT J. Odom Jasons back is a crapshoot. Sos his backup (P. Pierson) C

LG R. McDaniel New team means only one thing: longer flight to Hawaii A

C J. Christy One Pro Bowler for another (T. Mayberry). Push A

RG F. Middleton A wall to his left, a sieve to his right, a headache for him C

RT J. Wunsch Very, very, very, very ... big D

QB S. King Your team now. Translation: Please, please keep us close C

RB W. Dunn No longer best receiver on team. But may be busiest B

FB M. Alstott Where bull rushes are born B

Special Teams M. Gramatica kicks as pretty as his name B

Offensive grade C+

defense

DE C. Ahanot u If they dont give him Pro Bowl nod, he may get nasty B

DT B. Culpeper Savvy vet knows his role: Bring Sapp his doughnuts C

DT W. Sapp A s good as he thinks? Better A

DE S. White Hes not weak; its just that almost everyone else is strong C

LB S. Quarles Almost everyone C

LB J. Duncan No H. Nickerson. But here, doesnt even have to be S. Quarles C

LB D. Brooks Shhh: He, not Sapp, may have been Defensive MVP in 99 A

CB D. Abraham You know, this really isnt fair A

CB R. Barber On Bucs, theres always someone in wings. Here, B. Kelly C

SS J. Lynch Maybe not the best SS. Maybe, like, second-best A

FS D. Robinson Okay, its a little fair C

Special Teams They cover like they play defense. Relentlessly A

Defensive Grade A

The Deal May be first team to play Super Bowl at home

Since entering the NFL in 1996, WR Keyshawn Johnson has 31 TD receptions. Under Tony Dungy (1996-99), Bucs wide receivers have just 33 TD catches.

Team grade A-

2 minnesota vikings

green day

GM Denis Green could have had Jevon Kearse with the 11th pick in the 99 draft. But coach Dennis Green wanted QB Daunte Culpepper. Kearse was Rookie of the Year. Culpepper threw zero passes. Oops. This year, Culpepper gets a baptism by fire. The good news for him is that he has the best receiving tandem in the NFLRandy Moss and Cris Carter. Robert Smith rushed for 1,015 yards last season and is playing for big free agent bucks next ye a r. But Leroy Hoard (10 TDs) is gone, and so are two Pro Bowl linemen, Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy both in Tampa. New D-coordinator Emmitt Thomas uses attacking linemen to take advantage of the skills of All-Pro John Randle and newcomers Bryce Paup and top pick Chris Hovan. The LBsDwayne Rudd, Kailee Wong and Ed McDanielhave been shuffled to get Rudd out of the middle and blitzing more. The secondary will count on a pair of young corners, including converted WR Robert Tate. Future salary-cap constraints mean the Vikes have to have a Super season now. If they dont, Green may also get burned in Dauntes inferno.

Player the word

offense

WR C. Carter Hall of Fame may want to get early start on that bust A

WR R. Moss What we learned in 99: His off years are still on A

TE C. Crumpler Its even money that opponents wont even cover him D

LT T. Steussie Pro Bowl invites arent automatically renewable, big guy B

LG C. Lacina Learned some things from R. McDaniel. Alas, not everything C

C M. Birk Harvard alum needs to learn one word: HIKE! I

RG D. Dixon Used to just be big. Now hes big and getting better C

RT K. Stringer Luau menu committee might want to add some extra pig A

QB D. Culpeper Your guess is as good as D. Greens I

RB R. Smith Like Big Mac: Perpetual HR threat when hes healthy B

FB J. Kleinsasser What itd be like if E. Scissorhands ran routes D

Special Teams G. Anderson misses more nowand is still one of the best B

OFFENSIVE Grade B+

defense

DE J. Burrough Battling F. Smith. Vikes lose either way D

DT J. Randle Missed Pro Bowl in 99. So now hes really mad A

DT T. Williams Battling C. Hovan. Vikes wont lose either way C

DE T. Sawyer Expect to see B. Paup on pass plays. Lots of them I

LB D. Rudd Moves from weakside B

LB K. Wong Moves from strong side C

LB E. McDaniel Moves from middle. Who coached this unit in 99, anyway? B

CB K. Wright Didnt embarrass himself as rook (that gets you job here) C

CB R. Tate Hasnt taken to new position enough to be called ex-WR yet C

SS R. Griffith Could say hes heart of D (Uh-oh, now Johns really steamed) B

FS O. Thomas Once-promising defender has lost opportunistic touch C

Special Teams There is nothing like a good Berger A

The Deal Whoa! When did the NFC Central get tough again?

Only QB to start all 16 games for Dennis Green was Warren Moon in 95, but that was only time Vikes have missed playoffs during Greens tenure (92-99).

Team grade B

3 gren bay packers

back pack

LAST season, Packer fans might have chosen Ben Stiller over Brett Fav-ruh, just like Cameron Diaz did. There has always been something about the three-time MVP, and new coach Mike Sherman is Keeping the Faith for a return to Favres Super form. Actually, the offense is worthy of belief. When healthy, RB Dorsey Levens is a superstar. WR Antonio Freeman is still one of the best. New TE Bubba Franks is a monstrous target. And the O-line is better than last seasons. On D, though, there are some Mystery Men. DT Russell Maryland, DE John Thierry and rookie LB Nail Diggs will try to inject some life into the unit, which finished 29th in the NFL in sacks in 1999. LB Brian Williams is returning from knee surgery, and his health is critical. All-decade SS LeRoy Butler may thrive in new coordinator Ed Donatells gambling defense. In the end, though, even Stiller could tell you on whom the Packers fortunes will depend. If Favre is not his old self, Green Bay can borrow the title from another of Bens movies: Flirting With Disaster.

Player the word

offense

WR A. Freman Note to coaches: can cross middle, cant go deep B

WR B. Schroe der A pparently, hes allergic to red. As in red zone C

TE B. Franks Rook will try to mimic Chewie. On the field B

LT M. Wahle On paper, he excels. If only they played on paper C

LG R. Verba Man to stop Sapp, Randle and rest of Central bullies C

C F. Winters Yeah, hes still around. Still pretty tough, too B

RG M. Rivera Cover the childrens eyes. This could get ugly D

RT E. Dotson Bad back is back. Remember rookie M. Tauscher C

QB B. Favre Tendinitis in golden right arm could be annoying A

RB D. Levens Still limping a bit but getting closer to Pro Bowl form B

FB W. Henderson On team that needs top blocking FB, hes middling C

Special Teams Longwell can hit FGsif they dont bobble the snaps D

Offensive Grade B

defense

DE V. Holiday I s it just us, or was it easier with Reggie on the other side? C

DT S. Dotson When 100%, hes core of D. When is that, exactly? B

DT R. Maryl and Like G. Brown, only not as hungry C

DE J. Thiery You ask: LB or DL. We ask: Thats your question? D

LB N. Diggs Nice job learning spot. Now he needs to master it C

LB B. Harris Just dont ask him to cover anyone C

LB B. Williams Need him healthy, and that might not be a sure thing B

CB M. McKenzie A n impressive soph who still needs to prove himself C

CB T. Williams Okay, Tyrone, theyre paying you all this money ... C

SS L. Butler Didnt he used to be in the Pro Bowl? B

FS D . Sharper Toughest task? Keeping A. Edwards off field D

Special Teams P J. Bidwell looks to bounce back from cancer I

Defensive Grade C

The Deal Did you notice holes in that D? Opposing coordinators will

The Pack was just 53 at Lambeau Field in 99, their most home losses since 91.

Team grade C+

4 detroit lions

MEOW!

They call Barry Sanders replacement Little Man. Well, there is nothing little about replacing Barry Sanders. And there is nothing little about James Stewart, lured away from Jacksonville to upgrade the leagues 28th-ranked running game. Having no respect for the running game, defenses felt free to loot and pillage. Stewart (6'1", 226) needs to take the pressure off QB Charlie Batch, who is still recovering from a broken right leg. If Batch is healthy for the Sept. 3 opener, he will have one of the deepest receiving corps in the league, headlined by breakout star Germane Crowell. The line is solid, especially if King Kong Bundy-like RT Aaron Gibson (380 pounds) plays up to potential. The D returns 10 starters now that DE Robert Porcher regained his sanity long enough to accept the Lions offer of more than $25 million for the next four years. The pressure will be on CBs Bryant Westbrook and Terry Fair to improve the leagues fifth-worst pass defense. The Lions made the playoffs last year at 88 despite allowing more points than they scored. Little Man could make a big difference.

Player the word

offense

WR G. Crowell A nice problem, deciding between him and H. Moore B

WR J. Morton Hed be visiting Hawaii if he visited the end zone more A

TE D. Sloan You know, when hes healthy hes good. Better than good B

LT R. Roberts May be slow out of the gate after December knee injury C

LG S. McDougle Rook is strongest of strong line. As for best, some say its ... C

C M. Compton ... this canny ex-guard, but we say ... C

RG J. Hartings ... is one year (like last year) away from Pro Bowl B

RT A. Gibson New to starting lineup, if not training table (380 pounds) I

QB C. Batch When hes healthy hes okay. Which isnt often C

RB J. Stew art Barry? Barry who? Oh, yeah, that Barry B

FB C. Schlesinger Jackhammer body, tack hammer results C

Special Teams Kicking game is artistic; returns are sketchy B

Offensive Grade B-

defense

R. Porcher Finally got big-pay contract. What was the holdup? A

DT J. Jones A human drain clog C

DT L. Elliss Another guy who gets stoked stuffing running plays B

DE T. Scrogg ins Know what small but quick gets you? Flattened on end runs C

LB A. Aldridge Like a Chrysler minivan: boring but dependable C

LB S. Boyd Note to religious Lions fans: Pray he doesnt get hurt B

LB C. Claiborne Played well as rook, and didnt even know what he was doing B

CB B. Westbrook Hamstring willing, he and T. Fair are impressive pair C

CB T. Fair Always fast. Now hes starting to run with receivers B

SS R. Rice Bad news: must make too many tackles. Good news: He can B

FS K. Schulz Nose for picks or not, hes no M. Carrier C

Special Teams P J. Jett is unusual asset; coverage isnt usual liability C

Defensive grade B

The Deal Theyve got the talent. Of course, theyve had the talent before

Lions allowed an NFL-high 64 sacks in 99, including three or more QB muggings in 13 of their 16 contests. Detroit gave up just 45 sacks in 98.

Team grade C+

5 chicago bears

Da B-AIRS

Pass-happy while coaching at Louisiana Tech, Gary Crowton took over the Bears offense in 1999 and brought with him a college-style spread system, right down to the flanker screens and everybody-go-deep schoolyard charm. He made an NFL star of former NFL Europe star Marcus Robinson (1,400 yards, 9 TDs). Year 2 under Crowton may be even more interesting. The Bears are stacked at WR with Robinson, Bobby Engram, Marty Booker and two new burners, Dez White and Eddie Kennison. QB Cade McNown will be given every chance to run this team, but if he struggles, Jim Miller is a more-than-capable backup. Injury-prone RB Curtis Enis has shown flashes, and hell be playing at his Penn State weight of 250 pounds, up from 225 last season. And the line returns all five starters. On the other side of the ball, first-round pick LB Brian Urlacher and free agent CB Thomas Smith improve the leagues 29th-ranked D. Dont get your hopes up for another Monster of the Midway. The Bears wont be in the Super Bowl this year. But at least theyre not cute and cuddly, either.

Player the word

offense

WR B. Engram Playmaking ability has been underrated. Until now B

WR M. Robinson How do you say Its his time in Hawaiian? B

WR E. KENNISON Youll see lots of speedy Marty Booker C

TE J. Alred What can we say? Well, hes better than R. Wetnight C

LT B. Brockermeyer With better pass-blocking, game will match name B

LG T. Pery Somebody call his parents. Quick D

C O. Kruetz Hes meanwhich is nice B

RG C. Villarrial Almost as effective as he is strong C

RT J. Williams U p-and-coming leader of there-and-getting-better line B

QB C. McNown Fiery gunslinger will have plenty of weapons to lean on C

RB C. Enis He needed durability, hes added bulk. Well see C

Special Teams A Pro Bowl returner (G. Milburn), a toilet bowl kicker C

Offensive Grade C+

defense

DE B. Robinson Okay on pass, okay on run. Okay, they can do better C

DT J. Flanigan Most consistent performer on a very inconsistent line B

DT M. Wels Together, this run-stopper and P. Daniels make one fine DL C

DE P. Daniels Together, this pass rusher and ... (see above) C

LB B. Urlacher Did it all in college. Sadly, only plays backer in pros B

LB B. Minter Dont you love when they call em wily vets? He does C

LB W. Holdman Hoping hell repeat rookie season (without rookie mistakes) C

CB T. Smith Speed of a Pro Bowler, hands of pro bowler B

CB W. Harris Fine, as long as receivers run in straight lines C

SS T. Parrish Like Smith, needs more INTs to get to the Big Island B

FS S. Wooden Hell be sad when rook M. Brown takes spot. Bears wont D

Special Teams These guys cover kicks like their jobs depend on it A

Defensive Grade C

The Deal Hey, a December that will matter for Bears fans

WR Marcus Robinson set a team record with 1,400 receiving yards in 99, marking just the ninth time in 80 NFL seasons that the Bears have had a 1,000-yard receiver.

Team grade C

NFC WEST

1 st. louis rams

XXXI VMEN

The Rams are on such a roll that new head coach Mike Martzs biggest worry is the defending champions ugly new unis. St. Louis avoided a major distraction by rewarding QB Kurt Warner with $46M over seven years, including a team-record $11.5M signing bonus. Dont expect another 41 TD passesdates with the Redskins, Bucs and Seahawks make the schedule a little less friendlybut dont expect a big drop-off, either. The return of Trent Green means terrific depth, not a brewing QB controversy. Speedy rookie RB Trung Canidate adds another weapon to the Marshall Faulk/Isaac Bruce/Torry Holt arsenal, and backup WRs Tony Horne and Az-Zahir Hakim stretch defenses and put up points as kick returners. Ten starters return on a defense that allowed a mere 23 TDs and a league-low 74.3 yards rushing per game. The Rams had 29 interceptions, a total that may increase with the insertion of second-year CB Dre Bly into the starting lineup. Few are picking the Rams to repeatwere notbut ask yourself: Why, then, is everyone copying everything they do?

Player the word

offense

WR I. Bruce Divine A

WR T. Holt Human. With a bullet B

TE R. Williams Only a fair blocker, but guy next door needs no help C

LT O. Pace Not yet best tackle in game. Call back in 10 minutes A

LG T. Nutten NFL Euro all-star, NFL all right C

C A. McColum Fends off summer challenge from Steve Everitt C

RG A. Timmerman Wily vet isnt best in unit, just most important B

RT R. Tucker Addition by subtraction: Hes not Fred Miller I

QB K. Warner M. Rypien had a year like that once, too. Just sayin A

RB M. Faulk EJ should be so good: 4,656 total yards last two years A

FB R. Holcombe I s there a reward for getting out of Faulks way? Yeah, a job C

Special Teams When KR T. Horne is out of trouble, hes one of the best B

Offensive Grade A

defense

DE K. Carter QBs always knew him. Now everyone else does too A

DT R. Agnew Old dog still has enough tricks C

DT D. Farr What he lacks in size he makes up for in Dont you dare B

DE G. Wistrom Name a DE with a pair of INTs for TDs. Name another C

LB M. Jones Big plays a specialty (4 INTs in 99, The Tackle) C

LB L. Fletcher I f this guys not in Pro Bowl, well buy you a boat. Seriously B

LB T. Colins Theyre going to throw? See ya later, fellas C

CB T. Lyght Took long time to come into his own. Worth the wait B

CB D. Bly Hunch says hell overtake incumbent D. McCleon C

SS D. Bush Fill-in at free safety hopes not to need fill-in at strong spot C

FS K. Lyle D id fine without him. Will do a lot better with him B

Special Teams Least special unit on team. Of course, dont see much time C

Defensive Grade B

The Deal Skins? Bucs? Fool us once

Super Bowl champs went 133 in 99 with an NFL-best plus-284 point differential. From 90 to 98, Rams were 4599 with an NFL-worst minus-886 point differential.

Team grade A

2 carolina panthers

repo man

Panthers honcho George Seifert forgot to rebuild last year and fielded a good team instead, winning five of the last seven to finish 88 and a game shy of the playoffs. At 35, Steve Beuerlein stayed upright and had a career year, leading the league in passing yards (4,436). This time he will be without emerging star WR Patrick Jeffers (torn ACL, out for season), but Mushin Muhammad and Wesley Walls return. Fragile RB Tim Biakabutuka blossomed (5.2 yards per carry) but missed five games with ankle problems, so Carolina brought in oft-injured Natrone Means to help. Seifert gambled while overhauling the leagues 26th-ranked defense, signing former Falcons DE Chuck Smith, Cardinals DT Eric Swann (out seven games in 99 with knee woes) and unretired Reggie White (38) to help a pass rush that generated just 35 sacks. Veteran LB Lee Woodall replaces the retired Kevin Greene, bringing better field coverage but less of a pass rush. And Seifert upgraded his secondary with Jimmy Hitchcock and No. 1 pick Rashard Anderson. If it all holds together, Seifert can put off those rebuilding plans again.

Player the word

offense

WR M. Muhammad No, we didnt know hed be this kind of player, either B

WR D. Hayes Preseason loss of Patrick Jeffers major setback C

TE W. Walls Would rule roost even if other TEs hadnt fallen by wayside A

LT C. Jones Enters second season (about his limit with any team) C

LG M. Campbel Teams best blocker needs to be around more C

C F. Garcia Efficient, gritty. Read: Whats his name again? C

RG J. Nesbit Will hold on (to whoever rushes by) until J. Dexter returns D

RT C. Tery Future may be on left side. Make that: better be on left side C

QB S. BeuerleiN Creaky vet will get it done, but itll hurt him more than them B

RB T. Biakabutuka Trying to collect one injury for each letter of his name C

FB W. Floyd Still trying to be the player no one remembers anymore C

Special Teams Loss of K John Kasay cant be underestimated D

Offensive Grade B+

defense

DE J. WILLIAMS Ex-Ram and R. White put J. Peter on bench C

DT T. Morabito With E. Swann on passing downs ... at least C

DT S. Gilbert How many other projects could they afford with his money? C

DE C. Smith On line now filled with scary names, hes only one to fear B

LB L. Woodall Seifert favorite from Niners days helps immediately B

LB D. Wels Not paying top tackler M. Barrow was costly mistake D

LB D. Jones Sure, hes fast. But does he know where hes going? D

CB D. EVANS Seifert psycho J. Hitchcock didnt win job C

CB E. DaviS Getting on, but still lets few WRs get over B

SS M. Minter Each new job in secondary like promotion on career ladder B

FS R. Anderson Rookie has size, speedand no real experience at FS C

Special Teams Pro Bowler M. Bates not just great kickoff returner B

Defensive Grade C

The Deal Whole is better than the sum of its partsand still behind Rams

Pro Bowler Steve Beuerlein threw 36 touchdown passes in 99, doubling his previous career high, set with the Cardinals in 93.

Team grade B

3 atlanta falcons

d-i-v-o-r-c-e

the cure for a 511 season is simple: RB Jamal Anderson has to get healthy and QB Chris Chandler has to stay healthy. A torn ACL in Game 2 in 1999 cost Andersonand the defending NFC champsthe season. While Chris Chandler has played 12 seasons, hes never made it through 16 games. Still, hes easily the teams best quarterback. Dan Reeves signed deep threat Shawn Jefferson to complement Terance Mathis and Tim Dwight, and evergreen K Morten Andersen is still effective, but it all falls apart if the Big Two cant stay together. Theres plenty of talent on D, despite a line weakened by the free agent defections of Chuck Smith and Lester Archambeau. The Falcons have strong CBs in Ashley Ambrose and Ray Buchanan, a run-stuffing SS in Marty Carter and an emerging star in LB Keith Brooking. But the key is MLB Jessie Tuggle, whose ability to read and react makes or breaks this unit. Tuggle battled injuries last season, too, and at 35, you have to wonder. If Reeves can keep Chandler, Anderson and Tuggle on the field, the Falcons grab a wild card. If not, look out below.

Player the word

offense

WR T. Mathis Falcons all-time leader in catches (465) in just six years A

WR S. Jeferson Ex-Pat finds Chandlers no Bledsoe, Mathis no Glenn. Cool B

TE O.J. Santiago Yeah, yeah. Al Gore used to have a bright future too C

LT B. Whitfield Now hes a Pro Bowler, now hes not B

LG B. Hallen We can say this: first year as starter enough to earn second C

C C. Colins R. Tobecks are surprisingly big shoes to fill C

RG A. Redmon Ex-Panther only man between right side and utter confusion

C

RT E. Salaam I n emergency, break glass on T. Claridge. Say, Week 2 D

QB C. Chandler Apparently his motto is Always leave em wanting more B

RB J. Anderson Has one knee ever meant so much to so many? A

FB B. Christian So much for flying under the radar screen C

Special Teams PK M. Andersen slowing down; KR T. Dwight not B

DE P. KERNEY Well, his names a lot easier to spell than Archambeau C

DT T. Hall Used to be quiet cog. Now hes the whole damn machine B

DT S. Dronett I f he lasts the season, hell bag a half-dozen sacks C

DE B. Smith Hopes to make em forget C. Smith. We hope for world peace C

LB H. Crockett Youd think peer pressure would have raised his game C

LB J. Tuggle Heart, soul, lifeblood of this D. No contest A

LB K. Brooking Of course, some day J. Tuggle will retire B

CB R. Buchanan Teams second-best CB; would be No.1 most other places A

CB A. Ambrose Atlanta with Buchanan, or Saints with Hey, Coach Reeves! A

SS M. Carter Does most of his work in middle of field. Where he likes it B

FS R. Bradford Former corner adds speed to much-improved area C

Special Teams D . Stryzinski most underrated punter in league B

Defensive Grade C+

The Deal Hope that Super Bowl didnt spoil Falcon fans

The Falcons owned a league-worst turnover differential of minus-17 (18-35) last season, a year after their league-best plus-20 paved the way to the Super Bowl.

Team grade C+

4 new orleans saints

breakup

Who would have guessed that a wedding dress would be the highlight of Ricky Williams rookie season? Certainly not Mike Ditka, whose brief reign of error could keep the Saints out of the playoffs for years to come. New GM Randy Mueller started cleaning up the mess by bringing in QB Jeff Blake (Bengals), WR Jake Reed (Vikings) and deep threat wannabe Joe Horn (Chiefs) to provide Ricky with a little cover. Williams may never be worth what Ditka paid, but with a passing game and the strong William Roaf-anchored offensive line, he could turn out to be a star. Mueller also gave new head coach Jim Haslett free agent Norman Hand and No.1 pick Darren Howard to upgrade the D-line and the daring former Ram Charlie Clemons to plug in at MLB. Haslett also welcomes back star DE Joe Johnson, who missed 99 with a knee injury. But the secondary is still a mess with the departure of Ashley Ambrose and the season-ending injury to free agent Steve Israel. Hey, no one told Mueller this was going to be easy. But at least the Saints are heading in the right direction. Finally.

Player the word

offense

WR J. Reed Expendable in Minny, which gets him key to city in Big Easy B

WR J. Horn Will run under Blakes passes. Will catch some of them C

TE A. Glover He can get downfield. C. Cleeland out C

LT W. Roaf You know whatd be neat? I f he played for a decent team A

LG W. WILLIAMS Reliable vet makes sure Roaf just has to do his job C

C J. Fontenot Underappreciated snapper anchors emerging unit C

RG C. Naeole A s light on his feet as Rush Limbaugh C

RT K. Turley Hes a surfer. They surf in Hawaii. Its a nice fit. Next year B

QB J. Blake Has anyone ever hit Superdome roof? B

RB R. Williams Take two. This time, like you mean it. B

FB T. Smith Simple, rook: That guy in the dress? Just give him some room C

Special Teams Steady PK D. Brien would matter were he in any close games C

Offensive Grade C+

defense

DE D. Howard Rooks big and quick trumps J. Tomichs small but tough B

DT N. Hand Bolts franchise player jumps out of frying pan, into fire C

DT L. Glover I f only he played in, say somewhere other than here B

DE J. Johnson Actually, if his knee is okay, this line might be too B

LB K. MITCHELL But Hawks cap casualty D. Smith is lurking B

LB C. Clemons Ex-Ram has the ring. Might even have the game C

LB M. Fields Gets benefit of upgrades in unit. (Psst: he doesnt need it) B

CB A. Molden This D has lots of underrated guys. Hes not one of them D

CB F. Weary Would have beaten out S. Israel anyway C

SS S. Knight LB in safetys clothing. Too bad its not free safetys clothing B

FS D. Pery Took year offand isnt the better for it D

Special Teams Ex-Cowboy P T. Gowin brings big leg B

Defensive Grade C+

The Deal A new coach and enough new faces to double 99 win total

The Saints went 26 in their division last season, leaving them 931 since 95. They were 2919 (including playoffs) against the NFC West from 88 to 94.

Team grade C

5 san francisco 49ers

in a fog

THIS IS going to take time. The 49ers were forced to turn to the draft to upgrade the leagues 28th-ranked defense. First-rounders Julian Peterson, a pass-rushing LB, and Ahmed Plummer, a CB with enough ups to battle the big WRs, will start immediately. Second-round DE John Engelberger will be part of the DL rotation and second-round pick Jason Webster will beef up the secondary. Sure, Bryant Young is still a stud and old hands Ken Norton and Junior Bryant know their way around, but this crew will be learning from its mistakes. The offense isnt great, but its not as bad as you think. Charlie Garner stepped in for Garrison Hearst and gained 1,200 yards for the leagues top-ranked running game. Steve Young wisely retired, but QB Jeff Garcia is not the problem with the passing game49er WRs no longer keep DBs awake at night. Neither does TE Greg Clark, who may be the best blocker on a rather pedestrian line. But that s a problem for next years draft. And then the one after that.

Player the word

offense

WR J. Rice Deserves a better ending. Of course, so do Niners C

WR T. Owens Face it, Garcia to Owens just doesnt have same ring to it B

TE G. Clark When healthy, better blocker than teams lineman C

LT D. Dese D . Fiores pain is Derricks gain C

LG R. Brown Teams best blocker. Teams best 37-year-old blocker B

C J. NEWBERRY Uncertain future for hurting veteran Chris Dalman D

RG P. OSTROWSKI I n mix with versatile Dave Fiore thanks to injuries C

RT S. Gragg Niners happy to take Giants reject. Think about it C

QB J. Garc ia Once wondered about Young, too. Didnt they? D idnt they? C

RB C. Garner Best offensive player in San Francisco. Whats that about? B

FB F. Beasley Garcias go-to guy. Whats that about? C

Special Teams I f only PK W. Richey could return kicks D

Offensive Grade C

defense

DE J. Bry ant A n optimist? A guy wholl stick around for the rebuilding C

DT B. Young Comeback Player of Year turns Disgusted Player of the Year A

DT R. McGrew Last years No.1 pick is this years No.1 project I

DE C. Okeafor Nigerian for Keeping spot warm for rookie J. Engelberger D

LB J. Peterson He wants the QB. They want him on TE. Advantage: TEs B

LB W. Tubbs What doesnt fit: quick, tough, useless? Cmon, you can get it C

LB K. Norton Jr. Remember, long ago, when team was great? So was he C

CB A. Plummer As in toilet, which is where teamll be if rook doesnt produce C

CB M. Montgomery Nature (and football) abhors a vacuum. Hes a vacuum D

SS L. Schulters Strongest of a weak unit. Congratulations, Lance B

FS P. Prioleau Z . Bronson was overachieving starter in 99. Thats over C

Special Teams Incredibly, coverage is worse than punting D

Defensive Grade C

The Deal The Bulls got theirs. Niners are next. Hey, whens Yanks turn?

Five of 49ers 12 losses were by at least 18 points last season. The Niners lost only four games by that margin or more in their previous 280 regular-season games.

Team grade D

bristol calling

Rams, Bucs Colts and ...

afc finals: Bills vs. Colts

Nfc finals: Buccaneers vs. Rams

Super Bowl XXX V: Bills vs. Buccaneers

Super Bowl Winner: Bills

BEST qb: Indy driver

Peyton Manning: Manning-to-James alone could be worth 1,000 yards. Peytons also my MVP.

Dark Horse: Cade McNownBears cant run? Throw.

rb: Jolt in Jaguar

Fred Taylor : Injuries wont cripple explosive Jags O, which gets its spark from Taylors speed and power.

Dark Horse: Corey DillonCincys only vet weapon.

WR: Dep Treat

Marv in Harrison: He has what other WRs dont: Manning waits for him to get openwhich isnt long.

Dark Horse: Marcus RobinsonBears first option.

pass rusher: learning curve

Jevon Kearse: You never improve more than between your first and second years. Nuff said.

Dark Horse: Kevin Carter99 leader will lunch on QBs.

DB: Belichicks Boy

Ty Law: Hes a prototypical CB. Bill Belichick will get him near the ball a lot, and hell make plays.

Dark Horse: Champ BaileySkins new talent will rub off.

improve d team: Say Chese

Packers: Smart coaching changes, best O-line in years will bring Pack back. New scheme aids speedy defense.

Dark Horse: SaintsHaslett gets tough in Big Easy.