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2002 OFF-SEASON PREVIEW: NFC South

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2002 Off-season previews by division
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NFC South
Atlanta Falcons — 2001 record: 7-9 (T-3rd in NFC West)
2001 Season Success Meter: 3
The Falcons had a season of ups and downs, but they used all their resources in putting together a playoff run until limitations stopped them. Early lead for 2002 Media Guide coverboy:
Keith Brooking, LB

Off-season To-Do List:
1. Give Michael Vick help on offense
2. Add speed to secondary
3. Find next option at RB after Jamal Anderson

Should they stay or should they go?
STAY — Ed Jasper, DT
Jasper has been part of a solid three-man rotation at DT for the Falcons. Although they could shake down this spot, Jasper should be retained to provide solid depth.

GO — Darrien Gordon , PR
Despite coming off a solid season as a punt returner, Gordon hasn¿t been consistent enough from one year to the next during his career to earn a long-term deal.

Offense: The QB issue will be the biggest story this spring. Do they try to mix Michael Vick with Chris Chandler for another year? Neither player would like that. Or maybe it's time to go with Vick and face the future. There are also plenty of questions to answer at RB. Can Jamal Anderson return to form or do they need to work in another direction? It's hard to believe Anderson will return to form and Maurice Smith isn't a solution. Fullback Bob Christian is up in years, but was the Falcons' most dependable guy in the backfield with another solid season. There will be some changes at WR. Cutting Tony Martin was a good move while Terance Mathis and Shawn Jefferson are also upgradeable with younger talent. The Falcons need to add some playmakers with speed to help Vick for the future. As for the tight end position, they are in good shape with Alge Crumpler and Reggie Kelly. The O-line had an inconsistent year. Bob Whitfield had a down year, but should bounce back next season. Ephraim Salaam had an adequate year at right tackle, but could leave as a free agent. Bob McClure had a good year in the pivot. Bob Hallen was having a solid year at left guard, but then the Falcons replaced him with Roberto Garza and also inserted Kynan Forney at right guard. Both have some potential, but struggled with inconsistency this season. The Falcons need to make a decision regarding the future of Travis Claridge, who hasn't been able to cement a spot. Defense: Don't be surprised if there is a change along the defensive line. Tackles Travis Hall and Shane Dronett are adequate inside, but neither is a dominant presence that makes a difference. Hall hasn't taken his career to another level over the last few years. On the perimeter, Patrick Kerney emerged as a solid pass rusher and Brady Smith also had a decent year getting to the quarterback, but they need more help here against the run. At LB, Keith Brooking emerged as an impact player in the middle. They like their combination of Chris Draft, Henri Crockett, and Mark Simoneau on the flanks, but they don't make enough big plays. In the secondary, they need to make some changes. Ray Buchanan had a down year and could move inside. In any circumstances, he could bounce back next season. Ashley Ambrose had a solid year on the side, but they need more depth. Inside, they lack speed at the safety positions. Ronnie Bradford and Gerald McBurrows are dependable blue-collar players, but their limitations affect the pass defense. Special Teams: The biggest issue is with kicker Jay Feely. He was extremely productive inside 40 yards, but must become more consistent beyond that point.

Carolina Panthers — 2001 record: 1-15 (5th in NFC West)
2001 Season Success Meter: 1
The Panthers need new energy throughout their roster and organization. On top of that, a major upgrade in talent would help also. Early lead for 2002 Media Guide coverboy:
Dan Morgan, LB

Off-season To-Do List:
1. Breath new life and energy into this franchise, beginning with new head coach John Fox
2. Find RB that will be productive, healthy
3. Add defensive speed

Should they stay or should they go?
STAY — Larry Chester, DT
Chester is nothing special as a defensive tackle, but he¿s a strong run defender who can at least stabilize their depth to begin the new regime.

GO — Chris Slade, DE
There¿s no question the team should cut ties with Slade, who gave the club virtually no production as a pass rusher.

Offense: Chris Weinke began a new era at QB. While he could develop into a productive downfield passer, there must be questions on whether he really is the answer. The jury remains out. Weinke's growing pains seriously affected the play of his targets. Muhsin Muhammad had an injury-prone year and Donald Hayes slipped. Patrick Jeffers worked back into the rotation late and could rebound next season if he regains his quickness after an off-season of work. Issac Byrd emerged with a solid season. It looks like Wesley Walls is on the decline at tight end, but Kris Mangum didn't show enough to prove he's a worthy replacement. In the run game, Tim Biakabutuka was hurt again and Richard Huntley didn't turn too many heads. He played better down the stretch, but the Panthers need a dynamic option here. The offensive line looked much better following the addition of Todd Steussie at left tackle to pair with Chris Terry. Center Jeff Mitchell solidified the interior. Defense: They still have limitations and lack overall speed. The club needs to make a decision about Sean Gilbert's future again, but have a lot more problems to address. Kris Jenkins showed enough flashes to be a building block inside while Michael Rucker developed into a solid pass rusher. Another building block is needed. They would be smart to re-sign tackle Larry Chester, who can help against the run. Brenston Buckner overcame a slow start to have a solid season. Expect Jay Williams and Chris Slade to be elsewhere after terrible seasons. There are some mixed emotions at LB. Dan Morgan has shown he can be an impact player as he gains more experience. Darren Hambrick did a fine job after arriving from Dallas while Hannibal Navies suffered through some nicks. Lester Towns isn't a difference maker, but does a solid job in the middle. Eventually upgrades could be needed, but they have bigger needs for next season. The secondary was a mess at times. Doug Evans had a big year with eight interceptions, but he also gave up a lot of plays due to his lack of speed. Jimmy Hitchcock isn't a matchup corner either. Rashard Anderson has speed, but needs a lot of work. Deon Grant had an up and down year at free safety, but his upside remains solid due to his speed. Whether he can regain his form after a broken hip is another thing. Special Teams: The Panthers found a solution for their return teams with Steve Smith, who has big-play ability.

New Orleans Saints — 2001 record: 7-9 (T-3rd in NFC West)
2001 Season Success Meter: 2
Disappointing is the theme for the Saints. They underachieved and lost their blue-collar attitude. Early lead for 2002 Media Guide coverboy:
Fred Thomas, CB

Off-season To-Do List:
1. Clean house on the big attitude problem that filtered through the Saints locker room last season
2. Repair suddenly suspect defense
3. Decide if Ricky Williams is their guy or not

Should they stay or should they go?
STAY — Willie Jackson, WR
Although Jackson will be looking for more money than he¿ll get on the free agent market, it would be nice to see him back with the Saints next season. When Albert Connell proved to be a flop, Jackson stepped up nicely and made some key grabs.

GO — Cameron Cleeland, TE
The Saints have been there and done that with Cleeland too many times. He just can¿t stay healthy and give them production at tight end.

Offense: QB Aaron Brooks was erratic at the beginning and end of the season, not surprising considering his lack of experience. But he must improve next year. Meanwhile, the Saints must decide whether or not to keep veteran safety net Jeff Blake. Some veterans would have preferred to see Blake at times this season, but it never happened. Ricky Williams had a very good year until he basically handed the 49ers the season finale. Deuce McAllister showed just enough to earn more playing time next season as a solid complement in the backfield. With continuing back problems, expect Terrelle Smith to lose a lot of snaps to Moran Norris next season. Joe Horn had another big season after a slow start. Willie Jackson had a solid year after being entrenched as a starter. But I must say this again, just like I did last spring: what were the Saints thinking by signing Albert Connell? Robert Wilson added some depth. Don't be surprised if they add another speed receiver. At tight end, Cam Cleeland had another injury-plagued season. Boo Williams shows good matchup ability in the passing game, but they need a dependable all-around starter to build around. The offensive line fell apart at times when William Roaf went down at left tackle and didn't have the chemistry they had a year ago. If Roaf retires, Kyle Turley will move to the left side and they'll find a veteran for the right side. Also, expect a change at right guard, where Chris Naeole remains too inconsistent. Defense: The defense underachieved. It all started with Norman Hand, who returned to his days of being overweight and had a sub-par year. La'Roi Glover didn't play to last season's production, but had a good year. They had problems at linebacker throughout the year. Charlie Clemons had a good year as a pass rusher, which remains his strength. But he struggled against the run and had problems in pass coverage. Keith Mitchell fell back to being an enigma on and off the field. He didn't get to utilize his upfield skills much this season while struggling against the run and in coverage. Darrin Smith likely will be moved to a nickel role after struggling a little this season. Look for Sedrick Hodge to emerge as a solid starter next season. Fred Thomas and Sammy Knight had solid years to pace the secondary. Jay Bellamy had a good year, although he lacks the speed the Saints need at free safety. Don't be surprised if the Saints add a cornerback who can upgrade their matchup ability next season. Special Teams: Kicker John Carney had a solid year while punter Toby Gowin struggled. Deuce McAllister gave the Saints production on kick returns, but they must find a punt returner.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers — 2001 record: 9-7 (3rd in NFC Central)
2001 Season Success Meter: 2.5
The Buccaneers ended their season feeling that much was lost again. It's that simple. Early lead for 2002 Media Guide coverboy:
The Glazer family & Derrick Brooks, LB

Off-season To-Do List:
1. FIND A HEAD COACH
2. Re-establish team discipline
3. Discover how to pass the football

Should they stay or should they go?
STAY — Brian Kelly, CB
Brian Kelly emerged as a legitimate starter last season.

GO — Reidel Anthony & Jacquez Green, WR
Anthony and Green have become stale sidekicks to Keyshawn Johnson in the passing game.

Offense: They found a productive QB in Brad Johnson, but they couldn't score enough points with their passing game. Keyshawn Johnson had some very productive games, but only found the end zone once all season. Don't be surprised if they bring in more help in the passing game. Neither Jacquez Green nor Reidel Anthony have taken their game to a consistent level. Karl Williams finally had a chance to prove himself and did a fine job out of the slot. At tight end, Dave Moore is dependable, but the Buccaneers must upgrade here to get more production. The run game was again inconsistent. Warrick Dunn played through a tough injury and had limited effectiveness. Mike Alstott flashed some of his old form, allowing the Bucs to control the ground game at times. But the Buccaneers must make a decision on what direction they will go in with their run game. Dunn is a free agent who faces an uncertain future. The offensive line may also see some changes after a so-so year, which affected the run and pass games. Kenyatta Walker had an erratic year, but he'll make strides for next season. Likely, the key decisions must be made at left guard and center with Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy. Both are on the decline, especially McDaniel. Defense: They re-emerged over the latter half of the season. Simeon Rice started off slowly, but ended up with his most complete season of his career. He actually was making plays against the run. The biggest question is whether Warren Sapp has worn out his welcome with the team. Sapp didn't have the big year he boasted about prior to the season, but he continues to run his mouth. Most Buccaneers would love to put tape over his mouth. In the secondary, Brian Kelly emerged as a very solid cornerback, but is a free agent. If he's re-signed, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the team cut ties with Donnie Abraham and give Dwight Smith a bigger role next season. Special Teams: The big focus will be on the return game. Aaron Stecker emerged as a solid kick returner while Dwight Smith will see a bigger role next season. Karl Williams had a solid year returning punts, but is a free agent.

Tagged: Falcons, Cowboys, Broncos, Saints, 49ers, Buccaneers, Panthers, Michael Vick, Jay Feely, Alge Crumpler, Mark Simoneau, Ephraim Salaam, Reggie Kelly, Patrick Kerney, Roberto Garza, Kynan Forney, Bob Hallen, Keith Brooking, Brady Smith, Travis Hall, Bob Whitfield, Ashley Ambrose, Chris Draft, Henri Crockett, Norman Hand, Jeff Blake, Willie Roaf, Toby Gowin, Cam Cleeland, Deuce McAllister, Aaron Brooks, Terrelle Smith, Ricky Williams, Sedrick Hodge, Moran Norris, Aaron Stecker, Karl Williams, Donnie Abraham, Lester Towns, Larry Chester, Jeff Mitchell, Steve Smith Sr., Kris Jenkins, Deon Grant, Jay Williams, Kris Mangum

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