JUDGE: Five who could thrive

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Clark Judge

The Tampa Bay Bucs and Green Bay open training camps July 18, which means you have just over a month to predict the next rags-to-riches phenomenon. I¿m here not only to offer help, but to provide you five bottom-feeders I think could make an impact this year and maybe, just maybe, graduate to the playoffs. A year ago, I gave you Cleveland and Atlanta. Now I see Buffalo, 8-8 a year ago, taking a step forward — especially now that the have linebackers you don¿t have to clock with an hourglass. I also like what¿s going on in Kansas City and Seattle. The signed two defensive starters, and the have enough ammunition to convince me that they — and not the — are the biggest obstacle to St. Louis in the NFC West. Then there¿s Carolina, where the get to play with an offense this year, and Baltimore, where Ray Lewis¿ shoulders are so healthy he¿s talking as if he could carry the entire team ¿ which I think he could. Remember, this is only a list of long shots that could — and maybe should — reach the top of the mountain this season. None of these clubs won more than they lost last year, but I think that¿s about to change. And here¿s why:


The went into last season concerned about their offensive line, but the front five didn¿t keep them down; the defense did. Specifically, it was a group of linebackers who moved as if they were auditioning for an arthritis commercial. The recognized the problem and corrected it by hiring talented Takeo Spikes from Cincinnati and pass-rusher Jeff Posey from Houston. Then they brought in defensive backs Izell Reese and Dainon Sidney, signed defensive tackle Sam Adams, and, presto, just like that, they¿re back in business. Yes, the loss of wide receiver Peerless Price and back Larry Centers — two of the team¿s top three receivers — hurts Buffalo¿s passing attack. So will the departure of veteran tight end Jay Riemersma. But the have enough weapons on offense to move the chains; it¿s defense that murdered them a year ago, with Buffalo ranked 29th against the run and last in takeaways with 19. They¿re improved there. The question is: Can they overcome a brutally competitive division?

Kansas City

It¿s not only the additions of free-agents Vonnie Holliday, Dexter McCleon and Shawn Barber who make the league¿s lowest-ranked defense better. It¿s the return of defensive tackle Ryan Sims, last year¿s No. 1 pick, and safety Jerome Woods, too. It's also the move of Mike Maslowski to inside linebacker. Let¿s face it: If Kansas City makes the playoffs for the first time since 1997, its defense must improve from a year ago when it was 31st against the pass, allowing opponents to complete a league-best 65.4 percent of passing attempts. For all the concern about Priest Holmes, it¿s not the star running back who determines where the go; it¿s a defense that last year was shredded for at least 30 points seven times. Adding Barber and moving Maslowski make the faster at linebacker, and that¿s good. Adding McCleon gives them a nickel back who can cover, and that¿s better. Now, with Sims and Holliday joining the defensive line the might be able to pressure the pocket, and that¿s a start to catching Oakland.


It¿s not so much what Seattle gained in the off-season that makes a difference; it¿s whom it didn¿t lose. Like tackle Walter Jones. And defensive end Antonio Cochran. And linebacker Anthony Simmons. And wide receiver Darrell Jackson. All of them re-signed. So did quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and the don¿t make it unless he plays as he did the second-half of 2002. Seattle won four of its last six — including the last three of the season — as Hasselbeck grasped an offense coach Mike Holmgren tailored to him. Twice he threw for over 400 yards, including a franchise-record 449 yards in an overtime defeat of San Diego that ended the season. ¿I think we¿re growing up a little bit,¿ he said afterward. That¿s why I like these guys. I also like that they¿re playing Detroit, Cincinnati, Chicago and Minnesota — a combined 15-49 a year ago — and that they hired coordinator Ray Rhodes to straighten out a gawd-awful defense that ranked 28th overall and dead last against the run.


A year ago the couldn¿t find the end zone with a Sherpa yet they still wound up 7-9. That should have gained John Fox coach of the year consideration in his first season and put the NFC South on notice that there¿s danger lurking in Charlotte¿s web. The have the league¿s No. 2-ranked defense and just added former Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis to a backfield that may include the promising DeShaun Foster, who missed last season with a knee injury. And they overhauled one of the league¿s worst offensive lines, too, bringing in free-agent Doug Brzezinski and rookies and , And I haven¿t even mentioned tight end . Yeah, I don¿t know if Jake Delhomme can cut it at quarterback, either, but the bar won¿t be all that high if the run as they should. A year ago they were 25th in rushing, 30th in passing and lost four games by a total of 10 points — including a 12-9 decision to Tampa Bay. Now, with the changes they made, they¿re a legitimate playoff threat in the NFC¿s toughest division.


Ray Lewis not only is back; he says he feels better than ever. And that¿s good enough for me. It¿s not that Lewis is the best linebacker in the game; it¿s that he¿s the best defensive player, period, and with him in the lineup Baltimore is at least two to three victories better. Let¿s see, the were 7-9 a year ago, so that makes them ¿ uh-huh, playoff material. Baltimore is improved almost everywhere, with the additions of first-round draft choice , tackle Orlando Brown and wide receivers Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson the biggest steps forward. But it¿s the quarterback position that should determine how far this club goes, with rookie awaiting his turn behind incumbent Chris Redman. Neither is Trent Dilfer, and this is not the defense of 2000. But that¿s OK: Baltimore lost five games last year by no more than three points, and this is a more talented group, which means this is a more dangerous team. Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address:
Tagged: Bills, Packers, Chiefs, 49ers, Seahawks, Panthers, Ravens, Takeo Spikes, Izell Reese, Vonnie Holliday, Jake Delhomme, Jeff Posey, Anthony Simmons, Walter Jones, Matt Hasselbeck, Antonio Cochran, Stephen Davis, Chris Redman, Ray Lewis, Ryan Sims, Orlando Brown, Jordan Gross, Terrell Suggs, Kyle Boller, Bruce Nelson

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