The race for pro football supremacy in 2005 is officially on. Coming off two straight Super Bowl titles, the New England Patriots wasted no time getting this year's show on the road, opening their training camp four full days before any other team in the league.
Can the Pats make it three Super Bowl crowns in a row? Will Peyton Manning and the Colts finally find a way to win in Foxboro? Are the Eagles the team to beat in the NFC, with or without Terrell Owens? Pro Football Weekly begins answering all of the NFL's most pertinent questions by thoroughly examining each team's training camp.
Additional training-camp rundowns of each team's biggest positive, biggest negative and the most likely player on the verge are available on PFW's Web site.
Key veteran additions: QB Drew Bledsoe; NT Jason Ferguson; CB Aaron Glenn; CB Anthony Henry; S Izell Reese; OG Marco Rivera; RB Anthony Thomas.
Key veteran departures: FB Richie Anderson; LB Dexter Coakley; C Gennaro DiNapoli; S Tony Dixon; RB Eddie George; CB Pete Hunter; RB ReShard Lee; QB Vinny Testaverde; DE Marcellus Wiley; WR Randal Williams; S Darren Woodson.
Most significant change: The switch to the 3-4 defense. The move was confirmed when the team signed Ferguson and used six of its eight draft picks to help make the transition. Bill Parcells is well-versed in the 3-4, but coordinator Mike Zimmer had never coached it, so Parcells' message to Zimmer after the season was to learn everything he could about it.
Reasons for optimism: Parcells now has a running game he can count on with Julius Jones, Thomas and rookie Marion Barber, so the need to lean on the pass every game could be history. The coach also is counting on having some key veterans back from injury -- Terry Glenn, Dan Campbell, et al. -- who will help make this a more complete team.
Causes for concern: Making the switch to the 3-4 will not just require a flip of a switch. Most of the veterans have not played in a two-gap defense, and the Cowboys are banking on first-round pick Demarcus Ware to fill the critical ROLB spot. There are a few question marks at the LB positions, and some D-linemen, such as Greg Ellis and La'Roi Glover, who are not crazy about going away from a 4-3, worry that their playing time will diminish considerably. The lack of a deep receiver other than Glenn could be an issue.
Battle to watch: All eyes will be on right offensive tackle when camp opens. It was a trouble spot all of last season, and there is no clear front-runner right now. Torrin Tucker has ability, and Kurt Vollers at least understands his assignments, but the team has confirmed Larry Allen will get a look there.
Don't be surprised if … Allen becomes the starting right tackle. The team feels it has depth at guard (Andre Gurode, Ben Noll, Stephen Peterman, etc.) with the addition of Marco Rivera, and sources close to the team have been raving about Allen's new attitude this offseason. He has been a regular at the team's workout facility, focusing on aerobic activities such as the treadmill and stair-stepper. Though Allen was a Pro Bowler last season, some felt the selection was unwarranted. If his new approach is any indication, the Cowboys essentially could be adding two Pro Bowl linemen -- Allen and Rivera -- this fall.
New York Giants
Key veteran additions: WR Plaxico Burress; DT Kendrick Clancy; PK Jay Feely; QB Tim Hasselbeck; OT Kareem McKenzie; LB Antonio Pierce; OT Bob Whitfield.
Key veteran departures: DE Lorenzo Bromell; DT Martin Chase; CB Terry Cousin; RB Ron Dayne; DT Norman Hand; WR Ike Hilliard; DT-DE Lance Legree; LB-S Wesly Mallard; TE Marcellus Rivers; OG Barry Stokes; S Omar Stoutmire; QB Kurt Warner; DE Keith Washington.
Most significant change: This year, it's Eli Manning's team. So much of Tom Coughlin's first training camp last summer was spent dealing with questions about who was in the lead to be the starting QB -- Warner or Manning. Every practice snap, red-zone possession and two-minute drill was dissected by the coaches, media and players, and it was a huge distraction. Now, Manning -- who has been among the most diligent Giants this offseason -- has the starting role and can focus on building a rapport with his teammates and work on improving without any concern about someone taking his job.
Reasons for optimism: Despite having only four draft picks and not being noted as a team that typically makes major moves in free agency, the Giants solved some key areas of concern with the additions of ORT McKenzie, WR Burress, MLB Pierce and PK Feely. All four rookies will have a chance to compete as well, and all of a sudden, some classic Giants ills appear to be remedied.
Cause for concern: The defensive line is a big question mark. DE Michael Strahan, 33, is coming off a season-ending pectoral injury. Osi Umenyiora has great upside but has less than a full season of starting experience. And DTs Fred Robbins, William Joseph, Clancy and a handful of no-names hardly make for a thrilling group. The team was bad against the run last season and awful defensively in the red area. The D-line must overachieve, tackle and take on blockers better to improve those areas. Having better health would be a good start.
Battles to watch: It might not be at the most essential spots, but it will be interesting to see how the safety positions shake out. SS Shaun Williams (who restructured his deal in the offseason to stay with the Giants) has had season-ending injuries on each knee in each of the past two seasons. Veteran Brent Alexander, who started 16 games, told PFW this offseason he prefers to play free safety but would, as he did last year, switch to strong safety if needed. Gibril Wilson, appearing healthy following a neck injury, played superbly for half a season as a rookie. So who starts? Best guess: Wilson and Alexander begin the year at strong safety and free safety, respectively, but Williams will factor in heavily.
Don't be surprised if … a healthy Amani Toomer takes it upon himself to prove he's the No. 1 receiver on this club, using the acquisition of Burress as motivation and showing he can still play as Manning rounds into form.
Key veteran additions: QB Mike McMahon; TE James Whalen.
Key veteran departures: OT Ian Allen; DE Derrick Burgess; C Alonzo Ephraim; RB Dorsey Levens; ORG Jermane Mayberry; WR Freddie Mitchell; LB Ike Reese; LB Nate Wayne.
Most significant change: The losses of Pro Bowlers Mayberry and Reese, fixtures for years on the offensive line and special teams, respectively, will require some adjustments. They both also will be missed for their leadership, so some new voices must rise and take charge besides Donovan McNabb in the clubhouse.
Reasons for optimism: Assuming the team can resolve its lingering contract issues with Terrell Owens and Corey Simon, the team that lost to the Patriots by three points in the Super Bowl remains largely intact. With some new blood added from a strong draft and some young players ready to contribute and add depth across the board, the Eagles should be in fine shape to make another Super Bowl run.
Causes for concern: The situations with Owens and Simon bear serious watching and could provide major distractions in camp. Owens has become a full-time side show this offseason, but he did say just before the start of camp that he would report on time. If Owens causes too many waves in the clubhouse and/or Simon's holdout extends late into camp or, worse yet, into the season, the team could take a serious hit to its Super Bowl ambitions.
Battles to watch: Most positions are fairly well locked up, but there could be a battle of two Jim Johnson favorites at weak-side linebacker: Keith Adams vs. Mark Simoneau. Johnson indicated who was ahead by having Adams play most snaps with the first team in mini-camp, but Simoneau is tenacious and versatile, perhaps a tad more so than Adams. Also, a right defensive end must emerge. The likely candidates are Jerome McDougle and N.D. Kalu. Kalu is coming off a knee injury, and the Eagles would love nothing more than for McDougle to win the job and prove he was worth a first-round pick.
Don't be surprised if … Simon reports to camp some time in the first two weeks and Owens plays the "good teammate" as the season approaches and realizes he should stay put in Philadelphia for the time being.
Key veteran additions: LB Brian Allen; TE Billy Baber; S Tony Dixon; WR Kevin Dyson; WR Jimmy Farris; RB Brock Forsey; CB Artrell Hawkins; LB Warrick Holdman; WR Santana Moss; WR David Patten; S Pierson Prioleau; C Casey Rabach.
Key veteran departures: WR Laveranues Coles; DT Jermaine Haley; QB Tim Hasselbeck; PK Ola Kimrin; RB-KR Chad Morton; OT Vaughn Parker; LB Antonio Pierce; RB John Simon; CB Fred Smoot; WR Rod Gardner.
Most significant changes: The losses of MLB Pierce and CB Smoot leave two positions in doubt one year after the team made tremendous strides on defense under the guidance of Gregg Williams. With injuries and question marks among players looking to fill the voids there, one has to wonder if the team can still be a top-10 defense. On offense, look for Joe Gibbs to alter his running game some to take advantage of Clinton Portis' strengths; that means more stretch plays and straight-ahead runs and fewer counters and traps. The shotgun, which Gibbs shunned for years, also could be featured.
Reasons for optimism: The offensive line appears much stronger at right tackle and center with Jon Jansen back from injury and Rabach on board. That will allow better run-blocking (Portis averaged a disappointing 3.8 yards per carry) and pass protection (38 sacks allowed). Williams has been an inventive and creative coach in the past, and he should be able to conjure up something to keep his unit competitive.
Cause for concern: QB Patrick Ramsey has a major-league fastball, but his control (read: accuracy) remains a question. The reports on him in mini-camp were good, but he always has been a good practice performer. Ramsey must harness his good skills and improve his decision making for this team to win. With first-round pick Jason Campbell breathing down his neck, can Ramsey handle the pressure? It also remains to be seen how several smallish receivers factor in together, which could be difficult if teams blitz Ramsey and force him to make tough, tight passes to his hot reads on short routes.
Battle to watch: Middle linebacker is a country-mile wide open. The candidates: Mike Barrow, Lemar Marshall, Brandon Barnes, Robert McCune and Clifton Smith. And don't rule out Holdman … or Jared Newberry. It's anyone's guess right now who will end up starting, and it's highly unlikely given the injury histories and relative inexperience of some of the group that there will be one starter for 16 games this season.
Don't be surprised if … LaVar Arrington and the Redskins -- still embroiled in a contract grievance over a $6.5 million bonus payment -- kiss and make up during camp. The two sides need each other, and the matter has gone on long enough to hurt the reputations of both.
Key veteran additions: PK Doug Brien; FB Marc Edwards; OG Roberto Garza; OT Fred Miller; WR Muhsin Muhammad.
Key veteran departures: PK Paul Edinger; CB R.W. McQuarters; QB Jonathan Quinn; WR David Terrell; RB Anthony Thomas; OG Rex Tucker.
Most significant change: Another season, another offensive coordinator. Ron Turner, who held the same position and was QB coach with the Bears from 1993-96, has returned, replacing Terry Shea, and is in charge of breathing life into an anemic offense that ranked dead last in 2004. Turner has more talent at his disposal than did Shea, with free-agent signee Muhammad anchoring the WR corps and rookie RB Cedric Benson expected to provide balance.
Reasons for optimism: Management loves the defense and believes it can keep this team competitive with most teams. MLB Brian Urlacher, DE Adewale Ogunleye, LCB Charles Tillman and S Mike Brown each missed significant time due to injury in 2004. If this foursome is healthy, the Bears may boast one salty defense. On offense, a revamped offensive line -- the Bears allowed 66 sacks and averaged just 3.8 yards per rush in '04 -- and an influx of talent at the skill positions should help.
Causes for concern: Banking on unproven players such as WRs Justin Gage and Bernard Berrian and No. 2 QB Chad Hutchinson comes with risks. Gage and Berrian are battling to start opposite Muhammad, and Hutchinson, who was unemployed before the Bears signed him three games into the 2004 campaign, is the top backup to Rex Grossman.
Battles to watch: RB Thomas Jones needed three teams and five seasons to secure a starting job, which he handled nicely in his first year with the Bears. Yet Jones didn't convince the front office he was a difference maker, leading to the selection of Benson with the fourth overall pick in April's draft. Benson, a bell-cow runner at Texas, already has been told he'll figure prominently into the team's offensive game plan. Also keep an eye on CB Nathan Vasher. He'll open camp as the third corner. Still, some expect him to unseat Jerry Azumah for the starting job by the end of August.
Don't be surprised if … the Bears add a return specialist to the roster to help absorb the loss of McQuarters, the team's primary punt-return threat last season. The Bears discussed bringing former Texans return man J.J. Moses on board but must decide whether the 5-foot-6 specialist is more valuable than another receiver on the roster.
Key veteran additions: OLG Rick DeMulling; QB Jeff Garcia; WR Kevin Johnson; SS Kenoy Kennedy; OL Kyle Kosier; DB R.W. McQuarters; TE Marcus Pollard.
Key veteran departures: TE Stephen Alexander; WR Az-Zahir Hakim; S Brock Marion; ORT Stockar McDougle; QB Mike McMahon; WR Reggie Swinton; S Brian Walker.
Most significant change: Signing the veteran Garcia was a not-so-subtle hint to starting QB Joey Harrington that his margin for error has been greatly reduced. Garcia, a three-time Pro Bowler in a similar system with San Francisco, will threaten if Harrington stumbles out of the gate.
Reasons for optimism: On paper, the Lions have quite an impressive array of talent on both sides of the ball. RB Kevin Jones led the NFL in rushing over the final eight games of his rookie season and is a great asset, as is the trio of first-round picks at wideout and TE Pollard, to Harrington's development. The defense, solid if unspectacular with DT Shaun Rogers as its anchor, gets SLB Boss Bailey back from injury and added Kennedy and McQuarters.
Causes for concern: The Lions lack a dangerous pass-rush threat to pressure opposing quarterbacks such as Brett Favre and Daunte Culpepper. The secondary could have three new starters, including both safeties, Terrence Holt and Kennedy. Other than Bailey, the Lions don't know what the LB corps will look like in Week 1. MLB Earl Holmes and WLB James Davis must win their jobs in training camp with second-year LBs Teddy Lehman and Alex Lewis fighting for more time.
Battle to watch: Competition should be fierce at defensive end opposite unheralded James Hall. Cory Redding took the majority of the snaps at the end in 2004, but rookie Bill Swancutt and veteran Kalimba Edwards are better athletes with more natural pass-rush skills. Rookie second-round pick Shaun Cody might slide to end at times, but the Lions prefer to use the agile big man in tandem with Rogers.
Don't be surprised if … Harrington establishes himself as the clear-cut starter early in camp. He's expected to see extended action in preseason contests, and the Lions want to see Harrington's "A" game starting with the exhibition opener at the Jets on Aug. 12.
Green Bay Packers
Key veteran additions: S Todd Franz; S Arturo Freeman; OG Adrian Klemm; S Earl Little; OG Matt O'Dwyer; LB Raynoch Thompson.
Key veteran departures: S Bhawoh Jue; QB Doug Pederson; ORG Marco Rivera; S Darren Sharper; OLG Mike Wahle.
Most significant changes: The Packers lost, and didn't adequately replace, talented veteran leaders when Rivera, Wahle and Sharper were set free. Guards are not generally considered keys to an offense, but Rivera was a Pro Bowler and Wahle a near equal for a cohesive group that did fine work protecting Brett Favre. Sharper's play had slipped, but he was the best safety Green Bay had.
Reasons for optimism: The Packers have more questions on defense than Wisconsin has dairy farmers, but proved as division winners last year that they could survive by outscoring opponents. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates is expected to help, but turning around a group that allowed 380 points last season won't happen overnight. The Packers are replacing a few linemen, but Favre, RB Ahman Green and the rest of the offense remain intact, assuming Pro Bowl WR Javon Walker ends his contract dispute by coming to camp.
Causes for concern: Favre will be 36 by Week 6, and the Packers don't have a trusted backup. The defensive line and secondary have spots expected to remain unsettled into the regular season, and only four or five players are entrenched at their respective positions. A soft schedule helped Green Bay rebound from a 1-4 start a year ago, but the NFC North (the Packers are 9-3 in the division over the last two seasons) looks more competitive, and the AFC North front-runners Baltimore and Pittsburgh are on the schedule along with Carolina, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Battles to watch: CB Joey Thomas has closed the gap created by Ahmad Carroll during their rookie seasons. Thomas impressed coaches in the offseason while Carroll, often victimized as wide-eyed easy prey in 2004, chose to work out on his own away from the team. No one knows for sure how either will fit in Bates' system, but both have a lot to prove. Both safety jobs and more than one DL position are classified as yet-to-be-determined.
Don't be surprised if … TE Bubba Franks reaches a long-term contract extension before the regular season begins. Franks, designated the Packers' transition player, wants a long-term contract, and the Packers plan to give him one rather than let him become an unrestricted free agent next March.
Key veteran additions: MLB Sam Cowart; PK Paul Edinger; SLB Napoleon Harris; QB Brad Johnson; FS Darren Sharper; CB Fred Smoot; WR Travis Taylor; DT Pat Williams.
Key veteran departures: LB Chris Claiborne; QB Gus Frerotte; DT Chris Hovan; DE Kenny Mixon; WR Randy Moss; FS Brian Russell.
Most significant change: Moss, considered by many to be the most talented offensive player in football, was traded to Oakland in order to ease the volatile locker room, affirm head coach Mike Tice's control and free cash to invest in a talent-poor defense. The defense could have as many as six new starters and a very veteran look. Moss won't be replaced, even by the Vikings' strength-in-numbers approach. Instead, Minnesota would like to pound teams with a power running game now that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has left for larger paychecks with the Dolphins. Without RB Onterrio Smith, suspended for the season for another violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, Michael Bennett, Mewelde Moore, Moe Williams and Ciatrick Fason all have chances in the new RB-by-committee approach for first-year offensive coordinator Steve Loney.
Reasons for optimism: The Vikings have shown great potential over the last few years only to crumble down the stretch. Tice felt his team lacked the experience and killer instinct to continue without significant change. Now, with Pro Bowl centerpieces Daunte Culpepper and Kevin Williams, the team has gone to a fresh approach in hopes of catching -- and burying -- the Packers. Culpepper was brilliant in 2004, including most of five games without Moss, and Tice truly believes his defense might be the NFL's best.
Causes for concern: The sense of urgency in Minnesota may become overwhelming. The last time the Vikings placed this much of a burden on Culpepper, he turned the ball over 30 times trying to execute within the confines of the "Randy Ratio." Culpepper has matured infinitely since then, but his supporting cast is not what it used to be, and he'll be asked to win the team games. Each would-be starting linebacker has glaring flaws, and the best pass-rusher on the roster is DT Williams. SS Corey Chavous, entering the last year of his contract, and CB Brian Williams, angry he lost his starting spot to newcomer Smoot, were no-shows in the offseason but aren't expected to hold out.
Battles to watch: The most significant decision for defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell in camp is this: to start second-year LB Dontarrious Thomas and let him learn on the job, or shuffle the entire LB corps, gaining experience but losing athleticism with either Keith Newman or Raonall Smith. It could come down to whether another battle, between MLBs Cowart and E.J. Henderson, is the no-contest in favor of Cowart many say it is. The loser of that battle presents Cottrell yet another option outside.
Don't be surprised if … rookies Erasmus James and Marcus Johnson are opening-day starters. James, the 18th overall pick, should push Darrion Scott at defensive end and is a better pass-rusher. Johnson is behind Adam Goldberg at left guard, but the 6-6, 321-pounder has plenty working in his favor as the Vikings aim to get him valuable snaps early.
Key veteran additions: S Rich Coady; P Toby Gowin; LB Ed Hartwell; S Ronnie Heard; OG Matt Lehr; PK Todd Peterson; LB Ike Reese; OL Barry Stokes.
Key veteran departures: LB Chris Draft; PK Jay Feely; OL Roberto Garza; S Cory Hall; DE Travis Hall; DT Ed Jasper; P Chris Mohr; LB Matt Stewart.
Most significant change: The Falcons' offseason was pretty quiet, and considering the team was one win away from the Super Bowl, it wasn't in need of much change. Ex-Raven Hartwell adds more speed to the LB corps and should create more playmaking opportunities for Keith Brooking on the weak side.
Reasons for optimism: Atlanta's running attack was the best in the NFL last season, thanks to QB Michael Vick's athleticism, but Vick believes he can add some balance with an improved passing attack. Vick says he is more comfortable with the offense this season and is ready to put up big numbers through the air. With a solid, young receiving corps, he just might make good on his promise.
Causes for concern: The Falcons' run defense was porous at times last season, and DT Rod Coleman's recent off-the-field troubles could make a bad situation worse. The loss of DE Brady Smith for training camp (and possibly the start of the regular season) following surgery on his neck also is a huge blow that leaves the defensive line thin and vulnerable.
Battle to watch: WRs Michael Jenkins and Roddy White are itching to prove they can be stars in the NFL, and it could come at the cost of Peerless Price. Price is expensive and has been disappointing, and Jenkins has shown a lot of potential in workouts. If Price has a tough camp, he could find himself cut loose.
Don't be surprised if … second-year LB Demorrio Williams beats out free-agent addition Reese for the starting job on the strong side. Williams needs to find some consistency, but he has the speed and hunger that head coach Jim Mora Jr. is looking for in his linebackers this year.
Key veteran additions: P Jason Baker; S Idrees Bashir; LB Chris Draft; TE Freddie Jones; CB Ken Lucas; S Marlon McCree; OG Tupe Peko; P Tom Rouen; OG Mike Wahle.
Key veteran departures: OG Doug Brzezinski; LB Mark Fields; CB Artrell Hawkins; WR Muhsin Muhammad; QB Rodney Peete; P Todd Sauerbrun; S Travares Tillman.
Most significant changes: Where do we start? Pro Bowl P Sauerbrun was sent packing due to his off-the-field problems. Last year's leading receiver, Muhammad, bolted for Chicago, and RB Stephen Davis does not look as though he's going to be ready to start the season. The Panthers believe the punting situation isn't a big concern, but finding a consistent No. 2 to bookend WR Steve Smith is a priority, as is clearing out the logjam at running back.
Reasons for optimism: The Panthers can't possibly suffer as many injuries this year as they did last season, and the simple fact that the bulk of their key starters will return healthy will have the team focused early. The return of Smith from a broken leg should give the Panthers some explosiveness, and the defense should have some swagger with DT Kris Jenkins fully healthy again.
Cause for concern: For a team that depends on a grinding running game to be successful, the questions surrounding the RB position are major issues. DeShaun Foster has shown promise in the past but has a tendency to get hurt, Nick Goings was solid during the second half of last season, and rookie Eric Shelton has been slow to catch on in workouts. Finding a dependable running back in training camp is the team's top priority.
Battle to watch: WR Keary Colbert showed flashes last season, but it has been second-year pro Drew Carter who is turning heads in workouts. Nevertheless, believing that Carter needs time to develop, the Panthers traded for WR Rod Gardner. The former Redskin has started 62 of 64 NFL games, so he clearly can challenge Colbert for a starting job if he can become a more consistent receiver.
New Orleans Saints
Key veteran additions: WR Az-Zahir Hakim; OG Jermane Mayberry; TE Shad Meier; RB Antowain Smith; S Dwight Smith; CB Jimmy Williams.
Key veteran departures: CB Ashley Ambrose; S Tebucky Jones; WR Jerome Pathon; OT Victor Riley; LB Derrick Rodgers; LB Orlando Ruff; DL Kenny Smith.
Most significant change: Last year's offensive coordinator, Mike McCarthy, was allowed to leave because head coach Jim Haslett believed the offense had grown stagnant and too complicated. New coordinator Mike Sheppard plans to get back to basics and simplify the game plan to allow QB Aaron Brooks to have more confidence on the field.
Reasons for optimism: The Saints finished strong last season, sweeping their opponents in December, and they hope to continue that momentum in training camp. The team is deep at running back and wide receiver, although there is more potential than results when it comes to the younger receivers.
Cause for concern: The same Saints ballclub that went 8-8 last season pretty much is back this year. Was December a fluke? Did the Saints finish strong because they played teams that either were out of the running or saving their starters for the playoffs? If the defense doesn't show significant improvement early, it could make for a long year.
Battles to watch: Backup roles at running back and wide receiver face some serious battles. The duo of Aaron Stecker and Antowain Smith will face off for the honor of spelling Deuce McAllister, and Smith might be the better pure runner. Battle 1A might be between WRs Hakim, a free-agent signee, and second-year man Devery Henderson. Both have good speed and need to prove they can be consistent.
Don't be surprised if … LB Courtney Watson becomes the star of training camp. Watson showed a lot of potential last season with his speed and agility, but he was limited by injuries. He's healthy now, and he could be a blow-up hitter on the second level.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key veteran additions: TE Anthony Becht; CB Juran Bolden; PK Matt Bryant; WR Ike Hilliard; DT Chris Hovan; QB Luke McCown.
Key veteran departures: ORG Cosey Coleman; DT Chartric Darby; CB Mario Edwards; LB Ian Gold; QB Brad Johnson; WR Joe Jurevicius; WR Charles Lee; OG Matt O'Dwyer; S Dwight Smith.
Most significant change: Salary-cap issues forced the Buccaneers to say goodbye to some solid talent, including LB Gold. Gold was being groomed as Derrick Brooks' replacement, and without Gold on the field, the Bucs' LB corps is considerably weaker. The Bucs' defense still has some playmakers in Ronde Barber, Brooks and Simeon Rice, but its depth isn't quite the same.
Reasons for optimism: Tampa Bay has a core of good, young talent to build around in WR Michael Clayton and RB Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. QBs Chris Simms and McCown also figure into the equation for the future, but the mix of young and old could make the Bucs dangerous if an "us-against-them" attitude vs. the rest of the league is forged in training camp.
Causes for concern: Cap problems handicapped a team that went just 5-11 last season, and there are question marks all over the field. The offensive line is of particular concern, mostly because the Bucs didn't do much to solidify what was possibly their weakest area last season.
Battle to watch: The SLB position is up in the air with Gold out of the picture. Ryan Nece, Jeff Gooch and Marquis Cooper all will have a shot at winning the starting job. Gooch is the penciled-in first-stringer for the time being, but Nece has shown potential in the past, and Cooper has the speed that defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin loves.
Don't be surprised if … Williams earns the starting job at running back in training camp if he avoids a protracted contract holdout. Head coach Jon Gruden tends to shy away from rookies, but he doesn't have a lot of confidence in veteran Michael Pittman, and the positive experience with Clayton last season will make Gruden more willing to give Williams a chance to prove himself early.
Key veteran additions: OT Ian Allen; S Robert Griffith; OT Adam Haayer; LB Orlando Huff; DE Chike Okeafor; OT Oliver Ross; QB Kurt Warner.
Key veteran departures: OT Anthony Clement; CB Renaldo Hill; TE Freddie Jones; QB Shaun King; WR Nate Poole; OT L.J. Shelton; RB Emmitt Smith; OG Cameron Spikes; CB Duane Starks; CB Michael Stone; LB Raynoch Thompson; DE Kyle Vanden Bosch; WR Karl Williams.
Most significant change: A great deal is riding on Warner, who must play on a much higher level than he has shown the last two seasons. He certainly hasn't lacked confidence since entering the Valley, but without any bona fide deep threats to stretch the field as was the case in his glory days with the Rams, the two-time league MVP must rely more on pinpoint accuracy.
Reasons for optimism: The consensus is the Cardinals have benefited immensely from two excellent drafts in a row under Dennis Green. On offense, WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin could pack a downright nasty one-two punch. With creative coordinator Clancy Pendergast calling the shots, Arizona has an up-and-coming defense with legitimate top-10 potential.
Causes for concern: We already mentioned Warner's shaky track record the last couple of years, and he will be operating behind an offensive line that is far from being first-rate, especially at the OG spots. On defense, the likelihood that two of the team's top three cornerbacks will be rookies (Antrel Rolle and Eric Green) is more than a little scary.
Battle to watch: At tight end, take your pick among a bunch of no-names (Eric Edwards, Bobby Blizzard, Aaron Golliday, Adam Bergen) with Freddie Jones no longer on the roster. Edwards is the frontrunner by virtue of being the only challenger who has actually caught an NFL pass (five last season).
Don't be surprised if … QB Josh McCown ends up starting by the end of the season after Warner is either injured or just plain ineffective.
St. Louis Rams
Key veteran additions: LB Chris Claiborne; LB Dexter Coakley; S Michael Hawthorne; S Michael Stone; OG Rex Tucker; TE Roland Williams.
Key veteran departures: QB Chris Chandler; S Rich Coady; S Antuan Edwards; DE Bryce Fisher; LB Tommy Polley; OT Kyle Turley.
Most significant changes: Right offensive tackle and special teams. With Turley no longer figuring in the equation, the Rams are banking on first-round pick Alex Barron to start at right tackle from the get-go. Barron had to be pulled back after being overwhelmed in early mini-camps. Head coach Mike Martz made a concerted effort this offseason to pick up players well-suited for special teams -- an area he admits he previously had neglected.
Reasons for optimism: The Rams' offense showed signs down the stretch last season of regaining the explosiveness it displayed on a steady basis during Kurt Warner's heyday. Warner has been ably replaced by Marc Bulger, entering his second full season under center. RB Steven Jackson and fleet-footed No. 3 WR Kevin Curtis are exciting up-and-comers.
Causes for concern: The Rams' defense was a disappointment last season under new coordinator Larry Marmie, particularly against the run. The biggest concern is at the safety position. Adam Archuleta must rebound from a subpar, injury-plagued 2004 campaign, while a host of challengers battle for the other starting safety spot. The defense also must compensate for the nine sacks Fisher (who signed with Seattle) registered last season.
Battle to watch: Four players are in the mix for the starting safety job opposite Archuleta -- free-agent additions Stone and Hawthorne and rookies O.J. Atogwe (third round) and Jerome Carter (fourth round). Stone, formerly with the Cardinals, was impressive in the Rams' mini-camps and figures to be the front-runner.
Don't be surprised if … seventh-round rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick ends up being the No. 3 QB behind Bulger and Jeff Smoker. Martz has been impressed with the ex-Harvard product's ability to absorb the Rams' complicated offense so quickly.
San Francisco 49ers
Key veteran additions: DE Marques Douglas; OT Jonas Jennings; CB Willie Middlebrooks; WR Johnnie Morton; PK Joe Nedney.
Key veteran departures: DE John Engelberger; OT Scott Gragg; C Brock Gutierrez; FS Ronnie Heard; OT Kyle Kosier; PK Todd Peterson; DE Brandon Whiting; CB Jimmy Williams; WR Cedrick Wilson.
Most significant change: The Niners' new coaching staff, beginning with rookie head coach Mike Nolan. Unlike his predecessor, Dennis Erickson, Nolan is extremely hands-on and detailed. In addition, the philosophies and terminology are completely different on both sides of the ball. Up to now, Niners players appear to have reacted very favorably to the new staff.
Reasons for optimism: Aside from the coaching changes, the organization is confident that first-round pick Alex Smith could be a big-time star in the making, and there's no denying Smith is up to the challenge. Free-agent addition Jennings should provide a major boost at left offensive tackle and in the locker room. The LB corps has lots of talent and could excel in the team's new 3-4 scheme if it can avoid injuries.
Cause for concern: The biggest concern has to be the receiving corps, where a dominant force is clearly lacking. Heading into training camp, the No. 1 option in the primary "X" role is Arnaz Battle, who had only eight catches for 143 yards last season. Recent free-agent addition Morton looks a lot closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and while third-year pro Brandon Lloyd makes highlight-reel catches on occasion, he still has lots of trouble getting off the line of scrimmage.
Battle to watch: Even though the odds are strong Smith will start the regular season as the No. 1 quarterback, he still must prove in training camp that he's better-suited than either Tim Rattay or Ken Dorsey to get the job done. Smith's performance in the team's mini-camps was uneven, but there were moments when he looked really good.
Don't be surprised if … the Niners show dramatic improvement running the ball this season. While the offensive line could have problems with pass protection, its run blocking could be a major strength with Kwame Harris moving to right tackle and rookie OG David Baas added to the mix.
Key veteran additions: LB Kevin Bentley; DT Chartric Darby; CB Andre Dyson; DE Bryce Fisher; CB Kelly Herndon; WR Joe Jurevicius; WR Jerome Pathon; LB Jamie Sharper.
Key veteran departures: LB Chad Brown; QB Trent Dilfer; LB Orlando Huff; CB Ken Lucas; DE Brandon Mitchell; DE Chike Okeafor; WR Jerry Rice; S Damien Robinson; WR Koren Robinson; P Tom Rouen; LB Anthony Simmons; CB Bobby Taylor; OT Chris Terry.
Most significant change: After dumping Brown, the most significant free-agent addition in franchise history, and Simmons, a former first-round pick, the Seahawks are pretty much starting from scratch at linebacker. Heading into training camp, Sharper is projected as the starter on the strong side, D.D. Lewis is the top candidate on the weak side and rookie Lofa Tatupu and second-year pro Niko Koutouvides are expected to battle it out in the middle.
Reasons for optimism: Most of the Seahawks' offense is back intact, with key performers Matt Hasselbeck at QB and Walter Jones at OLT locked up with new long-term contracts. Hasselbeck has become the franchise's most visible player and is embracing his role as designated team leader.
Causes for concern: Now that Shaun Alexander has ended his holdout, the key worries are the lack of a proven pass-rusher in the front seven and an experienced backup behind Hasselbeck. DRE Grant Wistrom supplied high energy last season, but foot and knee injuries limited him to nine games and 3.5 sacks. Free-agent acquisition DE Bryce Fisher had the same number of sacks last season as the departed Chike Okeafor (8.5), so he too may provide the needed pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The only insurance behind Hasselbeck is third-year man Seneca Wallace, who hasn't thrown a regular-season pass, and rookie David Greene.
Battle to watch: The duel between Tatupu and Koutouvides for the MLB job should be intriguing. Koutouvides was an overachieving fourth-round draft pick a year ago, and many draft experts believe Tatupu is no more than a fourth-round talent himself. But the Seahawks got nothing but positive input from USC coaches and players on Tatupu and are expected to give him every opportunity to prove his worth.
Don't be surprised if … the Seahawks have two new starting defensive tackles to start the season with Marcus Tubbs and Darby replacing Rashad Moore and Cedric Woodard.
Material from Pro Football Weekly.
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