Monday, July 31, 2006

NFL 2006: Arizona Cardinals

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the Arizona Cardinals.)

Dennis Green begins season three in Arizona with a new stadium, an excited fan base and tons of optimism.

The signing of Edgerrin James in the offseason was the biggest in franchise history and with James in the fold, the Cardinals have the makings of a very potent offense indeed. If Green and his charges want to improve on last seasons 5-11 mark or make the playoffs for that matter, the defense needs to make big improvements in a hurry.

Offense: Green is slowly but surely taking the loser tag off the Cardinal franchise and a big reason that's so is the offense. Green has always been known for good offenses, he had them at Stanford and with the Vikings. The one he has at Arizona could be his best yet.

Kurt Warner returns at quarterback for a second season at Arizona. When Warner's healthy, he's a solid signal caller. The problem is, he can't stay off the DL. The former two-time MVP threw for 2,713 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games last season. Green needs a healthy Warner in 2006. The future of the franchise is USC star Matt Leinart. Despite winning two national championships, Leinart fell to the 10th spot in the draft. He wants to prove the scouts wrong but he better get into camp soon or the season is lost. John Navarre will be Warner's main backup.

James is an immediate upgrade to a running game that was dead last in the league in 2005. How the Colts could let him walk is beyond this writers comprehension. James (1,506 yards, 13 touchdowns) is also a receiving threat (44-337-1) and a guy who plays hard all the time. Marcel Shipp (451 yards) and J.J. Arrington (370-2) are the reserves. Obafemi Ayanbadejo returns at fullback.

The Cardinals have the best young receiving corps in the NFL with Larry Fitzgerald (103-1,409-10) and Anquan Boldin (102-1,402-7) both All-Pros. Bryant Johnson (40-432) is a capable number three, while free agent Troy Walters and LeRon McCoy will battle for the number four position. Greg Lee, Reggie Swinton and rookie Todd Watkins will fight for a roster spot.

Adam Bergen (28-270-1) is back at tight end, but rookie Leonard Pope, a physical presence at 6-7, 270 pounds, is breathing down his neck. Eric Edwards will serve as the third tight end.

Alex Stepanovich, who missed all of last season, returns and will battle incumbent Nick Leckey for the job at center. Elton Brown and Jeremy Bridges return at guard, but rookie Deuce Lutui and free agent Milford Brown will fight the starters throughout camp. Oliver Ross and Leonard Davis are back at tackle with Fred Wakefield in reserve. This was the lone weak spot on a decent offense and must improve or James will start to show his frustration and miss Indy in a hurry.

Defense: If Arizona hopes for any chance at a winning season or a playoff berth, this unit must step up and play a whole lot better than what they did in 2005. The Cardinals ranked 31st in total defense and gave up 27 points a game. With some injured players healthy and a fresh batch of new faces, Green is optimistic that this defense will be much improved in 2006.

Bertrand Berry (33 tackles, six sacks), who missed half the season last year, and Chike Okeafor (51 tackles, 7.5 sacks) lead a strong group of Arizona defensive ends. Calvin Pace, also out last season, and Antonio Smith are the reserves. Darnell Dockett is back at one defensive tackle spot with free agent Kendrick Clancy and rookies Gabe Watson and Jonathan Lewis fighting for the starting spot vacated by Russ Kolodziej. Kenny King is back from injury and will try to earn a spot in the rotation.

James Darling (88 tackles, two picks) mans the middle, while Karlos Dansby (88 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions) and Orlando Huff (69 tackles) occupy the outside. Daryl Blackstock, Lance Mitchell, Gerald Hayes and rookie Brandon Johnson provide depth.

Another Cardinal looking to bounce back from an injury is Antrel Rolle, Arizona's top pick in 2005. He'll be at one corner spot and team with David Macklin (61 tackles, two interception) or Eric Green (41 tackles), both starters last year. Robert Tate (two interceptions) will see action in the nickel or dime packages. Adrian Wilson had a stellar season at strong safety. His 109 tackles and eight sacks led the club. Free safety Robert Griffith is gone so Ernest Shazor, Aaron Francisco or free agent Jack Brewer will be in competition at free safety.

Special Team: The kicking game is a huge strength for the Cardinals with Neil Rackers, who led the league in scoring, at kicker and Scott Player (43.9) at punter. Rackers scored 140 points, making an amazing 40 field goals in 42 attempts and going a perfect 20-for-20 in extra points. Reggie Swinton returned both punts (8.0) and kicks (23.1) last season, but will be pressed by Walters.

Outlook: Arizona is loaded on the offensive side of the ball except where it matters most - the line. This is an offense that would chew up yardage between the twenties and then falter in the red zone. The running game was dead last in the NFL and even with James in the fold, the line has to block much better than it did last season. If Warner stays healthy, he could have a big year. This is the most talent he's had around him since the 'Greatest Show on Turf' days. The defense was awful and the Cardinals really didn't do much in the offseason to improve it. Injuries played a part in the ugliness and Green hopes healthy players will equal a better defense.

Prediction: The Cardinals are an up-and-coming team who may dominate in a couple of years - if the offense can stay together. However, domination isn't on the horizon just yet. The defense is just not good enough and the o-line is inconsistent. Arizona will have to score and score a lot to win games. If Berry and Rolle can come back from injury and Dockett regains his 2004 form, this team could make a playoff run. But the best bet is that the Cards are still a year or two away. Arizona will struggle on defense, ending any playoff hopes, and finish with an 8-8 or 9-7 record.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

NFL 2006: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.)

After a disappointing 2004 season, Jon Gruden and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers rebounded in a big way in 2005, going 11-5 and winning the NFC South Division title. They would eventually fall in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, but the message was heard loud and clear - the Bucs are back.

Gruden, who brought Tampa Bay a Super Bowl in 2002, is back for a fifth season with a veteran team that looks to do more damage and advance deeper into the playoffs in 2006.

Offense: There will be no quarterback controversy this year in Tampa Bay as Brian Griese was sent packing to Chicago and Chris Simms, who took over for an injured Griese and led the team to the playoffs last season, is the number one guy. He will lead an experienced offense that returns all 11 starters.

Simms (2,035 yards, 10 touchdowns) got better and better as the season progressed and Gruden feels he's going to have a breakout season. Tim Rattay and rookie Bruce Gradkowski are the backups.

Carnell Williams proved he was a Cadillac by winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Williams started off with a bang and stayed impressive all season long. He rushed for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns. Look for the 'Cadillac' to be even more impressive in 2006. Michael Pittman (436 yards) and Earnest Graham will spell Williams from time to time. The venerable Mike Alstott (six touchdowns, 25 receptions) returns at fullback for a 14th season. Jerald Sowell came over from the Jets to add depth.

Joey Galloway had a resurgence in 2005, catching 83 passes for 1,287 yards and 10 scores. Unfortunately for the Bucs, the other receivers failed to step up and help Galloway. Michael Clayton (32-372) is the other starter, but this is a make or break season for him. He must prove that he can be the receiver he was in college. Ike Hilliard (35-282) has also been a disappointment in his career, but has the skills to be a decent number three. Free agent David Boston looks to resurrect his career after an injury-riddle two seasons in Miami. Rookie Maurice Stovall could be the spark this group needs.

Alex Smith (41-367-2) had an outstanding rookie season and only looks to get better at tight end. Anthony Becht and veteran Dave Moore will provide backup.

The offensive line returns intact with John Wade at center, Sean Mahan and Dan Buenning at the guards and Kenyatta Walker and Anthony Davis at tackle. Watch out for top draft choice Davin Joseph. He will press Mahan and Buenning for a starting job. Jeb Terry, Torrin Tucker and rookie Jeremy Trublood (I love that name) provide depth.

Defense: The Bucs defense, under the direction of longtime coordinator Monte Kiffin, are still one of the best in the league, but the window of opportunity may be closing. This is a veteran group with many playing above the 10-season mark. With ten starters back, It's now or never for these guys.

Anthony McFarland (two sacks) and Chris Hovan (45 tackles) hold down the middle at defensive tackle, while Simeon Rice (40 tackles, 14 sacks) and Greg Spires (47 tackles, four sacks) wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks from their defense end spots. DeWayne White (35 tackles, three sacks), Ellis Wyms (two sacks) and rookie Julian Jenkins will see plenty of action as well.

Tamp mainstays Derrick Brooks (125 tackles, three sacks) and Shelton Quarles (129 tackles) lead the linebacking corps. Brooks, a future Hall of Famer, and Ryan Nece (76 tackles, two sacks) man the outside spots with Quarles in the middle. Free agent Jamie Winborn, Barrett Ruud and rookie Charles Bennett are quality reserves.

All-Pro Ronde Barber (99 tackles, five interceptions, two sacks) is back to lead the secondary. He will team with Brian Kelly (50 tackles, four picks) at the corners. Juran Bolden (42 tackles, two interceptions) is the nickel back, but will be challenged by rookie Alan Zemaitis. Jermaine Phillips (61 tackles) returns at strong safety, but Dexter Jackson left via free agency. He will be replaced at free safety by Will Allen (48 tackles, three interceptions). Donte Nicholson and Kalvin Pearson are reserves.

Special Teams: Matt Bryant (94 points, 21-25 field goals, 31-31 extra points) is a solid kicker and Josh Bidwell (45.6) has a booming leg at punter. Torrie Cox (19.3) returns kicks and Mark Jones (9.6) handles punt return duties.

Outlook: Tampa Bay is an experienced, veteran-laden squad that will challenge Carolina in the South Division once again. How far this team goes depends on the maturity and improvement of Simms. If he keeps learning and getting more comfortable in the pocket, this team could become very difficult to face late in the season. The Bucs have depth and talent everywhere on the roster. The only weak spots are wide receiver and safety. The front seven on defense is downright scary at times.

Prediction: With 21 starters back and another year of maturity for Simms and Cadillac, there's no reason to doubt that the Bucs will challenge for the division and a playoff berth. Tampa Bay will finish 11-5 or 12-4.

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

All-Pro Tackle Roaf Retires

Willie Roaf, an 11-time Pro Bowler, stunned the Kansas City Chiefs by announcing his retirement after 14 seasons in the league.

The 36-year-old Roaf told The Kansas City Star he was retiring, a move that would leave a large hole in the Chiefs offensive line.

Carl Peterson, president and general manager of the Chiefs, said neither he nor coach Herm Edwards had spoken with Roaf in several weeks and they were "leaving the door open."

"Certainly I am aware of what was written," Peterson said on the first day of Kansas City's training camp. "I'd say right now, because of who Willie Roaf is, what he has contributed to the Kansas City Chiefs and what he's contributed to the National Football League, we're going to keep the door open for a while. Players do change their mind."

Candidates to replace him include Jordan Black, who backed him up last year, Will Svitek and newcomer Kyle Turley, who missed the past two seasons with a back injury. The most likely scenario will have Black in for Roaf and Turley replacing right tackle John Welbourn, who announced his retirement earlier in the year.

The offense struggled last year without Roaf, who missed several games with a hamstring injury.

"We still have our three interior outstanding players, which is still the guts and the core of your offensive line," Peterson said.

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NFL 2006: New Orleans Saints

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the New Orleans Saints.)

The New Orleans Saints are looking to put the past behind them, the more recent past to be exact.

Last season was one that won't be on a Saints highlight reel anytime soon. Displaced because of the terrible devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was a vagabond team playing in the Alamodome in San Antonio. Deuce McAlister was lost for the season early on and the Saints never recovered, limping through the year with a 3-13 mark.

New coach Sean Payton takes over for the departed Jim Haslett and got off on the right foot when he landed Reggie Bush with the second pick in the draft and snagged Drew Brees from San Diego in free agency.

Offense: New Orleans has plenty of new faces in the offense and how they play together is key for a successful season. Payton needs to get these guys on the same page and to gel by the time camp ends and the real stuff begins.

Aaron Brooks and his inconsistent play are gone and in comes Brees - recovering from a torn rotator cuff that occurred on the last game of the 2005 season. The Chargers decided to go with Philip Rivers and Saints owner Tom Benson is glad they did. Brees (3,576 yards, 24 touchdowns) is a significant upgrade to Brooks. Free agent veteran Jamie Martin and Todd Bouman are the backups.

The biggest news of the offseason was getting Reggie Bush, the most exciting player in college football next to Vince Young, in the 2006 NFL Draft. Bush has already caused season ticket sales to sore and will pair with McAlister, who returns healthy, to form a potentially deadly duo. Michael Bennett (436 yards) is on the roster but may be traded. Aaron Stecker is a solid reserve also. Mike Karney returns at fullback.

Joe Horn (49-654-1) and Donte Stallworth (70-945-7) return at wide receiver with Horn looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2005 season. Devery Henderson, free agent Bethel Johnson and rookie Mike Hass will see action as well. Overall, this is not a very solid group.

Ernie Conwell (13-165-1) had an injury-plagued season and will have to hold off Zach Hilton (35-396-1) for the starting job at tight end. Free agents Mark Campbell and Tim Euhus will fight for a roster spot.

The offensive line lost three starters, including former All-Pros LeCharles Bentley and Wayne Gandy, that could adversely effect the Saints fortunes. They must step up and perform or it may be disaster by mid-season. Free agent Jeff Faine replaces Bentley at center, while Montrae Holland and Jermaine Mayberry are set at guards. Jammal Brown moves over to left tackle to replace Gandy and Jon Stinchcomb moves into the right tackle slot. Darnell Alford, Jamar Nesbit and rookies Zach Strief and Jahri Evans provide depth.

Defense: The offense isn't the only unit that went through major changes in the offseason. Four starters are gone and Payton's new additions hope to improve upon a defense that gave up 25 points a game last year.

Darren Howard packed his bags and moved to Philadelphia, but Charles Grant (62 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Will Smith (60-8.5 sacks) are more than capable of picking up the slack. Tony Bryant and rookie Rob Ninkovich make up the rest of the rotation. Brian Young (51 tackles) and Willie Whitehead return at defensive tackle, but will be challenged for playing time by free agent Hollis Thomas.

Colby Bockwoldt (89 tackles) is the only returning starter left from the linebacking corps as Ronald McKinnon and Sedrick Hoge are gone. New Orleans signed four linebackers in free agency who will battle for the remaining two spots. Tommy Polley (96 tackles, four sacks) and Scott Fujita (53 tackles) will compete for an outside linebacker spot, while Anthony Simmons and Jay Foreman will decide who's the man in the middle.

Mike McKenzie (46 tackles) and Fred Thomas (80 tackles, three sacks, two picks) return at the corners with Jason Craft (37 tackles, three interception) at the nickel. Rookies Josh Lay and Anwar Phillips will fight for a place on the 53-man. Josh Bullocks (67 tackles) is back at strong safety with free agent Bryan Scott (67 tackles) and Jay Bellamy battling at free safety. Rookie Roman Harper is in the mix as well.

Special Teams: John Carney (97 points, 25-32 field goals, 22-22 extra points) returns at kicker and Mitch Berger (43.2) is back at punter. Both are veterans who will be very dependable in crunch time. Stecker (21.7) returns kicks, while Johnson (11.0) or Bush will return punts.

Outlook: Payton has tried to put his stamp on the franchise right away with a new system and new players to fit that system. Reggie Bush will be a multi-dimensional threat that can be used in any situation. Brees is an underrated quarterback who will get New Orleans back on the winning track - just not this year. A lack of depth on offense and defense, along with a rebuilt offensive line spells trouble with a capital T. There's just too many holes and not enough talent around for Payton and his staff to fill it.

Prediction: The addition of Brees and Bush and the return of McAlister make this a better team than the 2005 Saints, but not much better. Payton needs time to complete his gameplan for building the franchise into winners so New Orleans fans need to be patient. Payton is the right man for the job - he just doesn't have all the pieces to the puzzle yet. The Saints will finish 5-11 or 6-10.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

NFL 2006: Carolina Panthers

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the Carolina Panthers.)

The Carolina Panthers have had tremendous success under John Fox and last season was no different. Carolina stormed to an 11-5 record, a wild card berth and went all the way to the NFC title game before falling to Seattle on the road.

With the addition of some key free agents and a solid draft, the Panthers are cocked and loaded for another run at the NFC championship and the Super Bowl. Carolina has one of the most talented teams in the league and if Fox's squad can stay healthy, it could be a big year for Carolina fans.

Offense: The Panther offense has slowly but surely gotten better and better under the Fox regime. Carolina scored 391 points last season, good enough for a 24.4 average. With very little turnover and some key draft picks coming in the Carolina offense could be even better in 2006.

Jake Delhomme has grown into a first rate quarterback and leader. The former NFL Europe player passed for 3,421 yards and 24 touchdowns. He has taken the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2003 and the NFC championship game last year. The guy is a clutch performer who knows how to win. Chris Weinke is the backup and Stefan Lefors or rookie Brett Basanez will fight for the three spot.

DeShaun Foster (879 yards rushing, 37 receptions, three scores) had another decent year, but can't stay healthy. His injury in the playoffs really limited the Carolina offense and what they could do. To counteract this, Fox drafted DeAngelo Williams, arguably the best pure runner in the draft. Williams ran for over 5,000 yards in college and will press Foster for playing time. Nick Goings is a capable back as well. Brad Hoover returns at his fullback slot.

Steve Smith had a breakout season in 2005. The undersized receiver led the league in receiving yards (1,563) and tied for the league lead in receptions (103) and receiving touchdowns (12). He put up those gaudy numbers because he had to, there was no other receiver helping him out. Keary Colbert was second on the team with only 25 catches for 282 yards. To resolve this problem, the Panthers went out and signed Keyshawn Johnson, who was released by Dallas after Terrell Owens signed. Johnson (71-839-6) is a big possession receiver who will keep the double teams off Smith. Drew Carter is penciled in as the fourth receiver.

Fox uses a tight end by committee with Kris Mangum (23-202-2), Michael Gaines (12-155-52) and Mike Seidman. Look for rookie Jeff King to challenge for a roster spot.

The offensive line lost center Jeff Mitchell and guard Tuten Reyes, but is still a decent group. Justin Hartwig was signed away from the Ravens and will replace Mitchell at center. Mike Wahle returns at guard and Evan Mathis takes over for Reyes at the right guard slot. Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton are back at tackle. Todd Fordham and rookies Rashad Butler and Will Montgomery provide depth.

Defense: One thing is for sure if you're a Carolina fan - as long as Fox is head coach the defense will be tough. The Panthers surrendered only 259 points last season, which translates out to only 16.2 a game.

The defensive line is one of the strongest in the NFL and it got even better with the return of defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who missed all of 2005 with a knee injury. When healthy, he's one of the best in the business. Interior partner Brentson Buckner is gone, but Carolina was busy signing Maake Kemoeatu from Baltimore and Damione Lewis from the Rams. This duo will compete with Kindal Moorehead (five sacks) for the other starting assignnment. Jordan Carstens (four sacks) is in the mix as well. Julius Peppers (50 tackles, 10.5 sacks) and Mike Rucker (44 tackles, 7.5 sacks) are dominating defensive ends. Al Wallace (five sacks) and rookie Stanley McClover will see action as well.

Carolina suffered a serious blow at linebacker, losing rising star Will Witherspoon and Brandon Short to free agency. Dan Morgan (75 tackles, three sacks) returns at Mike linebacker to lead this unit. Thomas Davis, the Panthers number one pick in 2005, moves from safety to linebacker and will take over for Short. Free agents Keith Adams (69 tackles) and Na'il Diggs will battle for the weakside linebacker job. Chris Draft and rookie James Anderson are in the mix also.

Chris Gamble (75 tackles, seven interceptions) and Ken Lucas (69 tackles, six picks) return to give Carolina a formidable duo at the corners. Free agent Reggie Howard (48 tackles), who makes his return to the Panthers, and rookie Richard Marshall will play in the nickel and dime packages. Mike Minter (62 tackles) is back at free safety with free agent Shaun Williams taking over at strong safety. Collin Branch and rookie Nate Salley will figure in the mix.

Special Teams: Reliable and dependable. That sums up kicker John Kasay (121 points, 26-34 field goals, 43-44 extra points) as he enters his 16th NFL season - twelve of those with the Panthers. Jason Baker (43.3) is back at punter. Smith will return punts (10.6) and Jamal Robertson will handle kickoffs (21.4).

Outlook: This is a solid team that got better with the signings of Johnson, Hartwig, Kemoeatu, Lewis, Howard and Shaun Williams and the drafting of DeAngelo Williams and Marshall. The Panthers are tough at every position and fairly deep too, with the exception of wide receiver. The only questionable area is the linebackers. Davis is untested and Adams and Diggs inconsistent. Regardless of that, this team has all the makings for a Super Bowl run if they stay healthy.

Prediction: Carolina is loaded and one of the favorites in the NFC. If Keyshawn and Steve Smith can function together, if DeAngelo Williams picks up the pro game quickly and the linebackers come together as a unit, this could be the team to beat in 2006. The Panthers will challenge for the division, the conference and the Super Bowl and go 13-3 or 14-2.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Bentley Lost For the Season

The Cleveland Browns suffered a huge blow on the first day of training camp when All-Pro center LeCharles Bentley suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Bentley was the top free agent acquisition by the Browns in the offseason. He signed a six-year, $36 million dollar contract back in March with $12.5 million of that guaranteed.

"He was the face of our free-agent class," general manager Phil Savage told "We feel terrible for LeCharles, but life goes on."

Savage said Bentley tore his patellar tendon and will undergo surgery as early as tomorrow. Savage declined to say if Bentley's tear was partial or complete and would not speculate on a timeframe for recovery.

Bob Hallen will move into the starting role at center, while the club will look to the waiver wire or find an unsigned free agent for depth.

Bentley, who played at Cleveland's St. Ignatius High School and Ohio State, took over as the Saints center in training camp two years ago. He started all 16 games in 2004 and was named a Pro Bowl alternate. Last year, he made 14 starts before missing the final two games with an elbow injury. In the end, the chance to return home and play was too strong an urge to resist and he signed with Cleveland in the offseason.

"He probably wanted to play for the Cleveland Browns as much as anyone we have," Savage said. "We feel real bad for him."

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NFL 2006: Atlanta Falcons

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at Atlanta Falcons.)

Last year was a dismal one for Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora, Jr. After going to the NFC title game in 2004, the Falcons collapsed offensively and defensively, falling to 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

Owner Arthur Blank has everyone, especially Mora, on a short leash as training camp starts. If a winning season and playoff berth aren't secured in 2006, Mora and many others could be looking for new jobs.

Offense: The Michael Vick Experience turned into a bad trip last season as the passing game sputtered and died a slow, painful death. The running game was the lone bright spot on an offense that despite scoring 22 points a game, couldn't throw the football.

I'm just going to come right out and say it and break character from this preview - Vick is the most overrated player in pro football. Yes I know he's a gifted athlete with a strong arm. But the arm is inaccurate and the running will get you killed in the NFL. He lives off his reputation. How can a QB who throws for only 2,412 yards and 15 touchdowns with a 55 percent completion rate make the Pro Bowl? You're guess is as good as mine. Matt Schaub is the better quarterback, but he's stuck on the pine.

The running game is what makes the Atlanta offense tick and Warrick Dunn is the clockmaster. The guy scouts said was too small for the NFL rushed for 1,416 yards and three touchdowns last season. T.J. Duckett (388 yards) is a short-yardage specialist who scored eight times in the red zone. Rookie Jerious Norwood will see some action as well. Justin Griffith returns at fullback.

The Falcons threw for a league low 181.6 yards a game, yet no changes were made at wide receiver. Brian Finneran (50-611-2) and Michael Jenkins (36-508-3) return as starters, but second-year man Roddy White (29-446-3) is battling for one of those staring positions. Jerome Pathon and rookie Adam Jennings are in competition for the fourth receiver spot. This is a unit that must improve if Atlanta wants to make a playoff run.

There are no such problems at tight end where Alge Crumpler is one of the best around. He had an All-Pro season in 2005 with 65 catches for 877 yards and five scores. Depth is a problem. Backup Eric Beverly had zero grabs last season.

The offensive line returns four of five starters with Todd McClure at center, Kynan Forney and Matt Lehr at guard and Todd Weiner at right tackle. Veteran Wayne Gandy comes over from New Orleans to take over on the left side. Austin King, Ben Claxton and Frank Omiyale provide depth to this solid unit.

Defense: The Falcon defense, the strength of the team in 2004, fell off in 2005 by surrendering 21 points per game. An offseason of deal making has brought in some big name players and renewed Mora's faith in a bounce back year for the defense.

The biggest news of Atlanta's offseason was the trade with the Jets for John Abraham. Abraham (58 tackles) is one of the best pass rushers in the league (10.5 sacks) and will team with Patrick Kerney (53 tackles, 6.5 sacks) to form an intimidating presence at defensive end. Rod Coleman (40 tackles, 10.5 sacks) is an All-Pro at tackle. Returning starter Chad Lavalais (25 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is penciled in at nose tackle, but he's facing a stiff challenge from Antwan Lake (3.5 sacks) and Darrell Shropshire. Jonathan Babineaux is in the mix as well. This is a very talented line that could be devastating on quarterbacks. The starters accounted for 30 sacks in 2005. But will all those pass rushers be able to stop the run?

MLB Edgerton Hartwell returns from injury and that means All-Pro Keith Brooking (115 tackles, 3.5 sacks) will move back to the outside. Demorrio Williams (127 tackles, three sacks, two picks) is the other outside starter. Michael Boley and Ike Reese are quality reserves.

All-Pro DeAngelo Hall (65 tackles, six interceptions) returns at corner to lead the secondary. Jason Webster (79 tackles) returns at the other starting spot, but will be challenged by rookie Jimmy Williams, a major talent with major attitude problems. Allen Rossum is a reliable veteran presence. Two new safeties will be pressed into action after Bryan Scott was traded and Keion Carpenter left via free agency. Luckily for Atlanta, both are experienced veterans. Lawyer Milloy (106 tackles) comes over from the Bills, while Chris Crocker (86 tackles, two picks) was picked up in a trade with Cleveland. Omare Lowe will see action also.

Special Teams: A huge question mark this season after Atlanta decided to save some money and let Todd Peterson go. The job will be decided between two rookies: Tony Delk and Zac Derr. The Falcons may have to go scanning the waiver wire during camp. Michael Koenen (42.3) returns at punter and Rossum will return punts (8.5) and kicks (22.6).

Outlook: The Falcons will follow the typical Mora pattern since he got there three years ago: win by playing tough, aggressive defense and pound the ball on the ground with his offense. The running game is strong and the line is solid, but the passing game, with the exception of Crumpler is not that good. Vick must start making better decisions and one or two of the wideouts must step up if Atlanta wants to get back to the playoffs. The defense will cause havoc on the quarterback, but Abraham, Kerney and Coleman are not run stuffers. Stopping the run was a big problem for the Falcons in 2005 and could be again.

Prediction: The defense needs to bounce back and the offense needs to improve in the passing game for Atlanta to be serious contenders again. Vick risks getting hurt with his run first, throw later mentality. He plans on running even more this season, because the powers that be feel he needs to bring back the improvising he did all through college and his rookie NFL season. Good thing they have Schaub. Atlanta can be a playoff team, but if they have troubles throwing the ball and stopping the run, and if the kicking game turns to mush, another disappointing season could be in store for Atlanta fans. The Falcons will falter in those areas and go 8-8 or 9-7.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

NFL 2006: Minnesota Vikings

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the Minnesota Vikings.)

The Minnesota Vikings started last year 2-5 and when Daunte Culpepper went down with a knee injury, it looked like Minnesota's season was over. In came Brad Johnson and the Vikings went 7-2 the rest of the way. Despite the late-season surge, Mike Tice was fired as head coach and former Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress was hired to replace him.

Childress brings a solid reputation and work ethic into Minnesota and his presence has been felt already. Minnesota has brought in many new faces via free agency and the draft in hopes of getting back to the playoffs in 2006.

Offense: The Daunte Culpepper era in Minnesota is over and its up to aging veteran Johnson (1,885 yards, 12 TDs) to stay healthy and keep the Viking ship afloat. Johnson is a quarterback who thrives in the West Coast offense, which is what Childress ran in Philadelphia. He can't afford to get hurt, because behind him is free agent Mike McMahon and either rookie Tarvaris Jackson or J.T. O'Sullivan. Ouch!

Free agent Chester Taylor (487 yards, 41 receptions) replaces the departed Michael Bennett and finally gets a chance to be a starter after playing in the shadow of Jamal Lewis in Baltimore. Mewelde Moore (662 yards, 37 catches) is a solid number two and Ciatrick Fason shows promise in his second year.

Childress has done away with Tice's two-tight end set and brought in free agents Tony Richardson and Joey Goodspeed at fullback.

Nate Burleson left for Seattle and for the second straight year the Vikings must find a replacement for a departed starter. Travis Taylor (50-604-4) assumes one starting spot, while Marcus Robinson (31-515-5) will take Burleson's place in the lineup. Koren Robinson (22 catches), Troy Williamson (24-372-2) and free agent Billy McMullen make up the rest of the receiver corps. This is a unit that must improve if the Vikings are to make a stab at the postseason.

With the two tight end starting lineup gone for the most part, Jermaine Wiggins (69-568) will retain his starting assignment, while Jim Kleinsasser (22-171) comes off the bench.

When All-Pro center Matt Birk went down with a groin injury at the beginning of training camp last season, his injury left the line in a state of flux all season long. Now Birk is back and ready to reclaim his elite status. The big news in free agency for Minnesota was the signing of All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson from Seattle. Hutchinson, the best guard in the NFL, received a record $49 million from the Vikings and along with Birk, will anchor this unit. Free agent Artis Hicks will battle incumbent Adam Goldberg and Chris Liwienski for the other guard spot. Bryant McKinnie returns at left tackle and right tackle will be in competition between Mike Rosenthal, Marcus Johnson and maybe Goldberg.

Defense: The Viking defense started out slow in 2005, but steadily improved as the season went along. Now with a year behind them and some fresh faces added, Childress hopes this defense will be ready out of the gate come September.

Kenechi Udeze missed all of last season due to injury, but hopes to regain the form he had his rookie season. Udeze will battle Erasmus James (four sacks) for the starting role. Darrion Scott (58 tackles, four sacks) is a rock over on the left side. Kevin Williams looks to rebound from a disappointing season that saw the former All-Pro collect only four sacks and 42 tackles. Pat Williams (66 tackles) anchors the interior line. Rookie Ray Edwards, C.J. Mosely and Spencer Johnson provide depth on the defensive line.

Linebacker was the weak spot for the Viking defense last year and it appears to be again this season. E.J. Henderson (75 tackles) returns at the strongside. Free agent Ben Leber and top draft choice Chad Greenway will battle for the weakside linebacker job. Dontarrius Thomas, last years starter at Will linebacker, moves inside to give Napoleon Harris competition.

The secondary is without a doubt the strongest unit of the Minnesota defense. It all starts with the formidable combination of Fred Smoot (41 tackles, two interceptions) and Antoine Winfield (98 tackles, four picks) on the corners. Most teams are lucky to have one shutdown corner, the Vikings have two. Brian Williams is gone so Will Hunter, Dustin Fox and rookie Cedric Griffin will battle for the nickel spot. Darren Sharper (51 tackles, nine interceptions) had another monster year at free safety. Free agent Dwight Smith (72 tackles, two picks) replaces the departed Corey Chavous at strong safety. Willie Offord and rookie Greg Blue will see action as well.

Special Teams: Paul Edinger was inconsistent so the Vikings went out and snagged Ryan Longwell from their enemy, Green Bay. Longwell (90 points, 20-27 field goals, 30-31 extra points) is a veteran, clutch kicker who will benefit from leaving Lambeau and going indoors. Chris Kluwe (44.1) is back at punter. Moore will return punts (11.7) and Robinson, an All-Pro special teams performer, returns kicks (26.0).

Outlook: Minnesota is a good team that got better in the offseason. Some big free agent signings and key draft choices has this team poised to challenge Chicago for the NFC North title. The offensive line, running game and secondary are first rate. The defensive line is solid and special teams are extrordinary, but all is not perfect. The Vikings are seriously thin at quarterback and the linebackers, even if Greenway has a solid rookie year, would be backups on most teams. The receivers are sub-standard. Travis Taylor is not a number one, but will have to be on this unit. Troy Williamson must step up after a lackluster rookie campaign or Johnson may have trouble throwing the deep ball this season.

Prediction: Despite some glaring weaknesses the Vikings are still a pretty good team that will compete with the Bears for the North Division championship. Minnesota will finish 10-6.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

NFL 2006: Green Bay Packers

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the Green Bay Packers.)

The theme song for the Green Bay Packers in 2006 should be 'Changes' by David Bowie, that's because the Packer brass decided to do some house cleaning after a disappointing 2005 saw the Pack slip to 4-12.

Green Bay was beset with injuries like no other franchise, except maybe Philadelphia. Those injuries, coupled with a lackluster defensive effort got Mike Sherman fired and Mike McCarthy hired. McCarthy responded with a complete overhaul of the defense, signing six potential new starters in free agency.

Offense: Green Bay has lived and died the past 14 season with Brett Favre at the helm but speculation swirled in the offseason that Favre was retiring. Brett hedged for awhile before deciding to come back for another year and with that the Packer Nation let out a big sigh of relief.

Favre, despite his 29 interceptions a year ago, is still a big-time quarterback. He threw for 3,881 yards and 20 touchdowns to a group of receivers that wasn't very deep. He'll have to do it again in 2006. Aaron Rodgers is biding his time as backup.

Ahman Green (255 yards) and Najeh Davenport (185 yards) return after an injury-plagued 2005 caused them to miss a combined 20 games. Given the chance to shine with the injuries to Green and Davenport, unknown Samkon Gado bolted on the scene by rushing for 582 yards and six touchdowns in five starts. Green is listed number one on the depth chart, but don't be surprised if Gado wins the job. William Henderson (30 catches) is back for his 12th season as Packer fullback.

The receivers were a weak spot last season and appear even weaker this year with Javon Walker and Antonio Chatman gone. Donald Driver is the lone bright spot. His 86 catches for 1,221 yards and five scores moved him into the number one role occupied by Walker. After Driver the pickings are slim. Robert Ferguson takes over at number two, but he caught only 27 passes last year. Rod Gardner, free agent Marc Boerigter and rookies Greg Jennings and Corey Rodgers will fight for playing time as well.

Green Bay has a nice group of tight ends. They're not flashy, but they get the job done. Bubba Franks (25-207-1) fought injuries last season and had a down year. David Martin (27-224-3) and Donald Lee (33-294-2) are capable of starting.

The offensive line, which suffered a big blow in 2005 when Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera left, lost another front liner when center Mike Flanagan signed with the Chiefs in the offseason. Starting guard Scott Wells moves over to center, while Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton return at tackle. The guard spots are wide open with incumbent Will Whittacker, Junius Coston, Adrian Klemm and rookie Daryn Collidge fighting for the starting jobs.

Defense: The defense surrendered 344 points last season, so changes were inevitable. The six free agent signings, along with some high draft choices has McCarthy optimistic as the new year looms on the horizon.

The one place were no change took place was at defensive end. The top four rotation players are back, led by starters Aaron Kampman (81 tackles, 6.5 sacks), who signed a new deal in the offseason, and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (51 tackles, eight sacks). Kenny Peterson (three sacks) and Michael Montgomery complete this unit. The defensive tackle spot will see two new starters as Kendrick Allen was signed away from the Giants and Ryan Pickett (65 tackles, two sacks) came over from the Rams. Grady Jackson wasn't re-signed and Cullen Jenkins, a starter last season, will join Corey Williams in reserve.

The same kind of turnover happened to the linebackers as well. Out is Robert Thomas and Na'il Diggs and in our free agent Ben Taylor (113 tackles) and rookie A.J. Hawk, the fifth pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. Nick Barnett (138 tackles) is back as the Mike or middle linebacker. Ray Manning, rookie Abdul Hodge and Brady Poppinga provide depth.

Charles Woodson, who also suffered through an injury-shortened season, left Oakland to come to Green Bay and he'll challenge returning starter Ahmad Carroll (44 tackles, two interceptions) for one of the starting corner spots. Al Harris (53 tackles, three interceptions, three sacks) is back and should make a good combo with Woodson. Carroll most likely will drop back into the nickel role. Mike Hawkins and rookie Will Blackmon may see action in the dime package. Nick Collins (84 tackles) and Mark Roman (90 tackles, two picks) return at safety, but free agent Marquand Manuel (71 tackles) left Seattle and will challenge for a starting job.

Special Teams: Ryan Longwell is gone, so former Dallas kicker Billy Cundiff has been brought in to replace the long-time Packer kicker. B.J. Sander (39.2) returns, but has competition in the form of rookie Jon Ryan. Davenport (18.9) will return kicks and Woodson takes over on punt returns.

Outlook: It's a shame that Brett Favre has to end his career in circumstances like these. The defections in the offensive line have made it considerably weaker. The receivers, with the exception of Driver, are not that good and the running game could be a disaster if Davenport and Green haven't made full recoveries. The defense should be better with the free agents and draft picks brought in, but Green Bay lost a key playmaker in Longwell. He's one of the games best, while Cundiff is one of the games most inconsistent. A definite downgrade in the kicking game.

Prediction: The defense needs some time to get used to each other but has potential. On the other hand, the offense isn't very good. Too bad for Favre. The Packers will have a long season and fight Detroit to stay out of last place. Green Bay will go 4-12 or 5-11.

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Law Signs with Kansas City

Cornerback Ty Law passed a physical and signed a five-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday.

"We are very pleased to have Ty with us," Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson told The Associated Press. "I just talked with our doctors. He's fine. He came in at 208 pounds. He's been working out and it shows. He's ready to go."

Law, a five-time All-Pro, signed a one-year deal with the New York Jets last season and had 10 interceptions. Now he'll be reunited with Edwards, who left the Jets at the end of the season and replaced the retired Dick Vermeil in Kansas City.

Law, 32, will team with another former Pro Bowler, Patrick Surtain, to form what could be a formidable defensive secondary.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

NFL 2006: Detroit Lions

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the Detroit Lions.)

The Detroit Lions struggled through another unproductive season, en route to a 5-11 mark. Steve Mariucci was fired mid-season and the fans hung GM Matt Millen in effigy.

Lions owner Henry Clay Ford, along with the disgruntled fans, demanded change so Millen went out and hired Rod Marinelli as the new head coach. Marinelli is a no-nonsense kind of guy who demands hard work and discipline, something the young Lions need and need badly.

Marinelli knew the offense needed a jolt so he went out and hired former Rams head coach Mike Martz as his offensive coordinator. Martz is an offensive mastermind who will try and bring his spread system to Detroit.

Offense: The young talent on offense has been underachieving for two years now and it's up to Martz to right the ship or more of Millen's high draft picks will be let go.

Joey Harrington was a bust and will try his luck in Miami. Millen brought in veteran Jon Kitna and Josh McCown to battle for the job. Kitna wanted to break free from the shadow of Carson Palmer and McCown couldn't get the job done in Arizona. It should be a heated battle throughout camp. Dan Orlovsky is the number three guy.

Kevin Jones battled injuries all season and had a major slide in production last year. After rushing for over a thousand yards in 2004, Jones collected 664 yards and five touchdowns in 2005. He needs to bounce back for the Lions to have a productive offense in 2006. Artose Pinner (349 yards), Shawn Bryson (306 yards) and rookie Brian Calhoun will fight for playing time. Corey Schlesinger returns at fullback, but will be challenged by rookie Matt Bernstein.

Millen drafted a wide receiver number one in three straight drafts (2003-2005) and so far it hasn't worked out for the Lions. Roy Williams (45-687-8) is the best of the bunch, but he's terribly inconsistent. Charles Rogers (14-197-1) is the other starter, but he can't stay healthy. Mike Williams had a disappointing rookie season and the coaching staff is not happy with his constant weight gain. Scottie Vines (40-417 yards) was a pleasant surprise for Detroit fans. Free agents Corey Bradford and Mike Furrey, who played safety last year, were brought in for depth.

Marcus Pollard (46-516-3) was the leading receiver for the Lions last season from his tight end spot. Free agent Dan Campbell and Casey Fitzsimmons will see playing time as well.

Key free agents and draft picks have been brought in to press the returning starters on the offensive line. Dominic Raiola is back at center, Rick DeMulling and Damien Woody are back at guard with free agent Rex Tucker and rookie Fred Matua as reserves. Jeff Backus, who just signed a new six-year deal, and Kelly Butler are return at tackle. Free agent Ross Verba will challenge Butler for the right tackle slot. Rookie Jonathan Scott is also on the roster.

Defense: The Lion defense fell under the same spell as the offense and was inconsistent throughout the season. With key veterans back from injury and some solid draft picks, the defense just may be on the road to dramatic improvement for 2006.

James Hall (60 tackles, five sacks) and Corey Redding are back at defensive end with Shaun Rogers (41 tackles, 5.5 sacks) the key man in the interior line. DT Dan Wilkinson was released and his position is up for grabs between Marcus Bell, Shaun Cody and free agent Tyoka Jackson. Jared DeVries (three sacks) and Kalimba Edwards (seven sacks) are solid reserves.

Boss Bailey and James Davis return as starters at outside linebacker, but top draft pick Ernie Sims will be breathing down their necks for playing time. Sims is a hard-hitter who makes plays all over the field. Look for him to be a starter before camp is over. Earl Holmes is gone at middle linebacker and his spot in the lineup will be decided by Paris Lenon or Teddy Lehman.

Dre Bly is one of the top corners in the league and his six interceptions led the team in 2006. Fernando Bryant returns after missing all of last year due to injury. Keith Smith, free agent Jamar Fletcher and Stanley Wilson provide depth. Kenoy Kennedy (96 tackles, two picks) and Terrence Holt (two interceptions) return at strong and free safety respectively. Free agent Idrees Bashir and rookie Daniel Bullocks are reserves.

Special Teams: Jason Hanson (84 points, 19-24 field goals, 27-27 extra points) is back for an amazing 15th season. Nick Harris (43.5) returns as punter, while Eddie Drummond will return punts (6.3) and kicks (22.0).

Outlook: Detroit is on the right track with the hiring of Marinelli and Martz. Both are proven winners and will demand the best from each and every player. All will be held accountable, no excuses will be tolerated. The Lions need a swift kick in the pants and major rebuilding. This team has too many weaknesses right now and one season will not be enough to turn it around. Give Marinelli and Martz, if he decides to stay, a couple of years and the Lions will be a contender. Just not this year.

Prediction: The Lions are young and with youth comes mistakes. Detroit will play hard and win some games, but Marinelli needs a couple of years to make his plan happen. Detroit will finish 6-10.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

NFL 2006: Chicago Bears

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the Chicago Bears.)

Lovie Smith took the Chicago Bears to the NFC North division title and the playoffs in only his second year as head coach, way ahead of schedule. A powerhouse defense, coupled with a strong running game propelled the Bears to an 11-5 record.

As 2006 approaches, Smith knows the Bears need more offense this season if they expect to capture another division title and a conference championship. The passing game was atrocious last year and needs to improve dramatically if Chicago fans want to see a replay of 2005.

Offense: The passing offense was the weak link on an otherwise strong ballclub. For some reason, Smith and the Chicago front office stood pat and didn't bring in or draft any high profile offensive players.

Kyle Orton started 15 games last year and led the Bears to a 10-5 record. Not bad, but his numbers were dismal: 1,869 yards, nine touchdowns, 13 interceptions. Rex Grossman returned from injury and started the final game of the season, plus the playoffs. Throw into the mix free agent Brian Griese (1,136-7-7) and you have the makings of a three-way quarterback battle. Grossman is the favorite, but with his history of injuries, don't count out Griese coming out on top.

Another exciting battle in the making is at tailback between last seasons starter, Thomas Jones (1,335-9) and Cedric Benson (272 yards). Benson was Chicago's top pick in 2005, but a camp holdout and a knee injury sidelined him for most of the season. Despite the numbers Jones put up in 2005, the Bears were trying to trade him in the offseason. Adrian Peterson (391 yards) and rookie Tony Hollings are the backups. Bryan Johnson returns at fullback, but Jason McKie and rookie J.D. Runnells will fight for the job as well.

Muhsin Muhammad had a decent year (64-750-4), but the rest of this unit must step up in a big way. Starter Justin Gage had just 31 catches in 2006 and will be challenged by Bernard Berrian and Mark Bradley for playing time.

Desmond Clark (24 catches) returns at tight end. John Gilmore was recently arrested for drug possession and resisting arrest so his future with the club is in doubt. Rookie Tim Day may emerge as the number two man in Gilmore's absence.

The offensive line is a strong point and should be even stronger in 2006 as all five starters return. Olin Kreutz is at center, Ruben Brown and Terrence Metcalf are at guard, and John Tait and Fred Miller hold down the tackle spots. Lennie Friedman, Roberto Garza and John St. Clair are solid reserves.

Defense: The real strength of the Bears team. The defense ranked first in the NFL in scoring (12.6) and was the main reason Chicago won 11 games last season. With all 11 starters back and a draft that featured four of the top six picks go on defense, it appears this unit will once again have to carry the Bears.

Alex Brown (45 tackles, six sacks) and Adewale Ogunleye (40 tackles, 10 sacks) had monster seasons at defensive end and will be counted on to duplicate or top that feat this season. Michael Haynes, rookie Mark Anderson and Jamaal Green provide depth. Tommie Harris (32 tackles, three sacks) and Ian Scott shut down the middle, with Tank Johnson (five sacks) a key contributor. Rookie Dusty Dvoracek will see action too.

It only gets better when you move from the line to the linebackers. Brian Urlacher (121 tackles, six sacks) is arguably the best middle linebacker in the NFL today. Lance Briggs (107 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions) and Hunter Hillenmeyer (63 tackles) are solid outside backers. Leon Joe and Brandon Ayanbadejo are quality reserves.

All four starters return in the secondary, but changes may be made. If Chicago had one small weakness in its defense it was in this area. Nathan Vasher (46 tackles, eight interceptions) is a lock for one corner spot, but incumbent Charles Tillman (93 tackles, five interceptions) will be challenged by free agent Ricky Manning, brought over from Carolina. Rookie Devin Hester will be used mostly on special teams. Veteran Mike Brown (72 tackles, three interceptions) is back at strong safety and Chris Harris (58 tackles, three picks) returns at free safety, but faces stiff competition from top pick Danieal Manning. Todd Johnson returns as well.

Special Teams: Robbie Gould (82 points, 21-27 field goals, 19-20 extra points) was inconsistent last year, so Smith brought in rookie Josh Huston from Ohio State to fight for the job. Brad Maynard (41.0) returns as the punter. With Jerry Azumah retired, Hester figures to move in as punt and kickoff returner.

Outlook: Chicago will once again be led by its defense. The offense is solid on the line and in the running game, but make no mistake, if Smith wants to have another year like 2005, he needs one of the quarterbacks and a receiver besides Muhammad to step up and have a big year. This team is a playoff-caliber squad, thanks to the defense, but even great defenses have bad days. The offense managed only 16 points a game last year and must do better if the Bears are to improve and go deeper in the playoffs.

Prediction: The defense is one of the best in the NFL and if this unit can stay healthy, the Bears will be in the hunt for the North division crown. If they can't find some sort of passing game, it could be another quick playoff exit or out of the postseason all together. Chicago will fight Minnesota for the division and finish 10-6 or 11-5.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

NFL 2006: Washington Redskins

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the Washington Redskins.)

It took Joe Gibbs only two seasons to put the Washington Redskins back on the winning track and into the playoffs. So much for the game passing him by. The Redskins went 10-6 in 2005 and earned a trip to the playoffs, eventually falling to Seattle 20-10 in the divisional playoffs.

Not one to rest on his laurels, or his checkbook, owner Daniel Snyder went on a spending spree in the offseason, bringing in a bevy of well-known talent in the hope of putting the 'Skins over the hump and into the Super Bowl.

Snyder also put together the most expensive coaching staff in the history of the league, re-signing defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to a huge payday, while adding offensive coordinator Al Saunders and secondary coach Jerry Gray.

Offense: Mark Brunell bounced back from his subpar year in 2004 to lead the Redskins to the playoffs last season. His 3,050 yards and 23 touchdowns sent Patrick Ramsey packing and gives Brunell unquestioned control of the team. Jason Campbell is the heir apparent and Todd Collins is a veteran backup.

Gibbs loves to run the football and he couldn't be more happy having Clinton Portis getting the brunt of those carries. The former Miami U. star rushed for 1,516 yards and scored 11 touchdowns and earned another trip to the Pro Bowl. Ladell Betts (338 yards) and Rock Cartwright are quality reserves.

The biggest change in Redskins camp is at the wide receiver position. Santana Moss (84-1,483-9) is back after having a sensational year and now he has some help. Antwaan Randle-El (35-558) was signed away from Pittsburgh and Brandon Lloyd (48-733-5) didn't leave his heart in San Francisco. They will join incumbent David Patten, who's back after missing most of last season. Randle-El is penciled in as the other starter with Moss. James Thrash and Taylor Jacobs make this group potentially an outstanding one.

Chris Cooley had a break-out year in his H-Back, tight end role. His 71 grabs for 774 yards and seven touchdowns went largely unnoticed, but that shouldn't be a problem this season. Look for another big year from Cooley. Robert Royal is gone, but Christian Fauria was brought in from New England and will start in Gibbs' two tight end offense.

The offense line returns intact with Casey Rabach at center, Derrick Dockery and Randy Thomas at guard and Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels at tackle. Jim Molinaro and Tyson Walter provide depth.

Defense: This was a top ten unit in 2005 that only got better this year with the free agent signings of Adam Archuleta, Andre Carter and Kenny Wright. Williams loves an attacking, blitzing defense and the athleticism and speed is in place for another solid year from the Washington D.

Carter (4.5 sacks) will team up with incumbent Philip Daniels (48 tackles, eight sacks) at defensive end to make an impressive pass rushing combo. Renaldo Wynn, last years starter, will move into a reserve role with Demetric Evans (three sacks). Cornelius Griffin (35 tackles, four sacks) and Joe Salave'a will hold down the interior of the line with Ryan Boschetti and Cedric Killings providing backup.

Lemar Marshall (98 tackles, four interceptions) returns at middle linebacker and Marcus Washington (93 tackles, 7.5 sacks) is back after an impressive 2005 campaign. Levar Arrington played his way into Gibbs' doghouse and eventually right out of town. Warrick Holdman will take over his outside spot and needs to have a big year to make people forget the athleticism of Arrington. Robert McCune and rookies Roger McIntosh and Spencer Havner will also see some action.

Former Rams strong safety Archuleta (70 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Sean Taylor (70 tackles, two interceptions) form a deadly combo at safety. Both are hard-hitting and have a nose for the football. Archuleta is a liability in pass coverage, but against the run he's phenomenal. He'll be like an extra linebacker for Williams. Pierson Prioleau and rookie Reed Doughty are backups. Carlos Rogers (46 tackles, two picks) and Shawn Springs (50 tackles) are solid corners, while Wright, signed away from Jacksonville, will handle nickel duties.

Special Teams: John Hall (63 points, 12-14 field goals, 27-27 extra points) has played in only 18 games the past two seasons and needs to have a healthy 2006. The Redskins used three different kickers in Hall's absence last season. He's got a big leg with lots of range and if healthy, can be that x-factor late in ballgames. Derrick Frost (40.4) returns as punter. Betts (25.9) returns kicks and Randle-El (10.2) should take over punt return duties.

Outlook: On paper the offense looks a lot better with the additional help at wide receiver. Portis is a big-time back and the offensive line is solid, especially at tackle with Jansen and Samuels. Williams is one of the best defensive coaches in the business and with more toys to play with, look for Washington to be among the elite on the defensive side of the ball. The question marks are at quarterback and a lack of depth on the defense. Brunell had a bounce back year in 2005, but he'll be 36 at the start of the season and the question remains: can he repeat his performance from last year? If not it could be bad news for 'Skins fans. Campbell is not ready yet and Collins is a career journeyman. The defense will be tough, but needs to stay healthy. There's not much depth and it could be problems if some starters go down.

Prediction: On paper the Redskins have a better team than last season. Whether that translates into more wins or not remains to be seen. The division is a monster. The Giants and Cowboys are better than last year too and the Eagles have all their guys back from injury. If Brunell can keep it together for another year, Washington is a legitimate playoff threat. The Redskins will challenge for the division and go 10-6.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

Faulk to Have Surgery, Will Miss 2006 Season

St. Louis Rams tailback Marshall Faulk, the ninth-leading rusher in NFL history and a future Hall of Fame member, will undergo knee surgery next week that will sideline him for the 2006 season and possibly end his career.

The surgery, confirmed Friday by Rams coach Scott Linehan, will be an extensive reconstructive procedure and will probably require eight to 12 months of rehabilitation.

The most likely scenario is that St. Louis will place Faulk on injured reserve, which would end his 2006 season. Such a move would cost the Rams $2 million and would prompt speculation that he will not return to the playing field.

St. Louis also has the option of waiving Faulk, but the Rams don't seem inclined to do so, just for the purpose of potentially saving some money on his contract. And for the fact of what he has meant to the franchise the last seven seasons.

The Rams signed former Green Bay running back Tony Fisher in the offseason, but he's more of a third-down back who comes in on passing downs. Steven Jackson, who rushed for 1,046 yards last season, is the starter. The rumor mill is swirling about the possibility of St. Louis making a trade with New Orleans for Michael Bennett.

Faulk is coming off a 2005 season in which he carried only 65 times for 292 yards and caught 44 passes for 291 yards. His rushing yards, receiving yards and all-purpose yards were the lowest of his career. Faulk has not posted a 1,000-yard rushing season since 2001.

He has rushed for 12,279 yards and scored 158 touchdowns, to go along with 19,190 all-purpose yards, in a stellar career that began as the number one pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 1994. He was traded to the Rams in 1999 and was voted Offensive Player of the Year in 1999 and 2001. He was named NFL MVP in 2000.

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NFL 2006: Philadelphia Eagles

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the Philadelphia Eagles.)

No team was bitten more by the injury bug then the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005. With at least seven key people missing time to injuries, added to that the distractions that Terrell Owens caused and it's pretty easy to see why the Eagles fell from Super Bowl participant in 2004 to 6-10 last season.

Now with everybody predominantly healthy, coupled with an impressive draft class and some key free agent signings, head coach Andy Reid is feeling confident that Philadelphia can get back to its winning ways in the rough and tumble NFC East.

Offense: The key to the season is the health of Donovan McNabb. The former All-Pro quarterback played in only nine games in 2005 because of a sports hernia. With a healthy McNabb and Michael Westbrook, new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg hopes the Eagles can return to 2004 form.

The offense begins and ends with McNabb (2,507 yards, 16 touchdowns). If he's healthy, he's one of the best. Jeff Garcia was brought in just in case and he's a significant upgrade to Mike McMahon. Koy Detmer is the third quarterback.

Westbrook (1,233 total yards, 7 touchdowns, 61 catches) had trouble staying healthy and consistent last season. Westbrook needs to step it up a notch. He signed a big contract after the Super Bowl and hasn't lived up to it yet. Ryan Moats (278 yards, three TDs) and Bruce Perry are capable backups. Thomas Tapeh returns from injury and will battle incumbent Josh Parry for the fullback job.

T.O and his constant distractions are gone so now it's up to second-year man Reggie Brown to step up and take over the number one role. His 43 receptions for 571 yards and four touchdowns was good for a rookie, but those stats need to jump significantly in 2006. Todd Pinkston, who missed all of last season, returns at number two, while free agent Jabar Gaffney (55 catches) is in the slot. Greg Lewis (48 receptions) and rookie Jason Avant will see action as well.

L.J. Smith had a solid season at tight end, leading the team in receptions with 61. He was second on the squad in yards (682), but he only got in the endzone three times and that needs to improve. Free agent Matt Schobel will provide depth.

The offensive line is solid, even if a little long in the tooth at tackle. Hank Fraley comes back from injury, but he'll be seriously challenged at center by Jamaal Jackson, who just signed a new seven-year deal. Shawn Andrews is back at guard, while Todd Harremans takes over for the departed Artis Hicks at left guard. Adrien Clarke and rookie Max Jean-Gilles are reserves. Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan return at tackle, both older and more brittle than ever. Rookie Winston Justice will push them for playing time.

Defense: The defense is loaded on the line and in the secondary. The linebackers aren't as strong as in years past under coordinator Jimmy Johnson, but they're still capable of solid play.

Jevon Kearse (7.5 sacks) will be joined by newcomer Darren Howard, free agent pickup from the Saints, at the ends. Trent Cole (five sacks) returns after a solid rookie campaign and former starter Jerome McDougle is back after missing all of last season from a gunshot wound. Mike Patterson (44 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Darwin Walker return at defensive tackle and will be joined by Sam Rayburn, free agent Ed Jasper and rookie Broderick Bunkley.

Jeremiah Trotter (119 tackles) captains the defense from his middle linebacker slot, while Dhani Jones (70 tackles) returns as the Sam linebacker. Free agent Shawn Barber makes his second appearance in Philadelphia and will challenge Matt McCoy for the weak-side spot. Mark Simoneau and rookie Chris Gocong will see action as well.

The secondary is solid, especially at corner with starters Lito Sheppard (three interceptions) and Sheldon Brown (56 tackles, four interceptions). Roderick Hood (four picks), Matt Ware and free agent Donald Strickland make up the rest of this impressive unit. Michael Lewis (107 tackles, two interceptions) and Brian Dawkins (77 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three interceptions) make a formidable pair at safety, while Quinton Mikell, Sean Considine and J.R. Reed, trying to come back from a devastating leg injury, provide depth.

Special Teams: David Akers (71 points, 16-22 field goals, 23-23 extra points) is back after missing significant time due to a hamstring injury. Dirk Johnson (41.4) returns as punter. Reno Mahe (12.8) returns punts and Hood (23.7) handles kickoff chores.

Outlook: The Eagles are a solid team when healthy and good enough to challenge for the division. The problem is that Dallas, New York and Washington have gotten even better, while Philadelphia has dropped back some. The defense is tough, with the exception being outside linebacker. The offense is thin at running back and the line has questions at tackle with Thomas and Runyan and their ability to stay healthy. Reggie Brown must step up and be a true number one and Pinkston needs to have a bounce-back year or else the passing game could be in trouble. This division is the toughest in football and Philadelphia needs to stay healthy and have everything fall into place if it wants to challenge in 2006.

Prediction: The Eagles are still a good football team and McNabb is a star quarterback, but the talent around him has diminished. Westbrook is too injury prone and losing Owens did hurt as far as talent goes. Great coaching and a solid defense will keep the Eagles in the playoff chase all season, but the other teams in the division have gotten stronger. Philadelphia will finish 9-7.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

NFL 2006: New York Giants

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the New York Giants.)

Tom Coughlin's rebuilding process with the Giants took only two years to complete. Last season, New York won the NFC East championship, en route to an 11-5 mark. Now the reloading process begins.

With an already stout defense adding some key free agents and a solid draft class, the Giants look to improve upon last season and fight off the Eagles, Cowboys and Redskins in what has become the premier division in football.

Offense: This is a unit that scored over 400 points last season and is only going to get better. Barring injuries, New York may have the top offense in the NFC.

Eli Manning (3,762 yards, 24 touchdowns) improved dramatically in year two, but he still had bouts of carelessness and poor decision making (17 interceptions). Manning proved that he has just as much talent as big brother Peyton and another year older and wiser should make him a better leader. Tim Hasselbeck and Jared Lorenzen are capable backups.

Tiki Barber (1,860 yards nine touchdowns) has become and elite back and showed no signs of slowing down last season. He's a double threat as evidenced by his 54 catches last season. Brandon Jacobs is the backup and short yardage specialist who found the end zone seven times in 2005. Chad Morton is the third-down back. Jim Finn returns at fullback.

Plaxico Burress (76-,1214-7) shined last year in his first stab as a featured receiver, while Amani Toomer (60-684-7) is a solid number two. The addition of top draft choice Sinorice Moss makes this one of the most dangerous receiving units in the NFL. Tim Carter is the number four wideout.

Jeremy Shockey (65-891-7) had another solid season at tight end. The addition of Boo Williams from New Orleans and Visanthe Shiancoe provide depth at the position.

The offensive line returns intact with Shaun O'Hara at center, Chris Snee and David Diehl at guard and Luke Petitgout and Kareem McKenzie at tackle. Bob Whitfield, Rich Seubert, free agent Grey Ruegamer and rookie Guy Whimper provide depth.

Defense: A good Giant defense should be even better in 2006, thanks to some solid free agent pickups and draft choices. The linebackers are an especially strong group.

Defensive ends Michael Strahan (81 tackles, 11.5 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (70 tackles, 14.5 sacks) combined for 26 sacks and two Pro Bowl berths. Rookie Mathias Kiwanuka and second-year man Justin Tuck will see plenty of action in reserve roles. William Joseph returns at defensive tackle with either Fred Robbins, free agent Junior Ioane or rookie Barry Cofield taking over for the departed Kendrick Clancy at the other inside slot.

Free agent Lavar Arrington looks to revive a career that went stagnant in Washington. He will be joined by middle linebacker Antonio Pierce (99 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions) and outside backer Carlos Emmons to form one of the top starting units in the league. Brandon Short (60 tackles), who came back to New York from Carolina, Reggie Torbor and rookie Gerris Wilkinson form the rest of this solid group of linebackers.

A huge shakeup in the secondary saw Will Allen, Will Peterson and Brent Alexander all shipped out of town. In their place, Sam Madison (Miami), R.W. McQuarters (Detroit) and Will Demps (Baltimore) were brought in. Madison (55 tackles, two picks), McQuarters (60 tackles, two interceptions), Corey Webster and Curtis Deloatch (56 tackles) will battle for starting spots at the corners. Gibril Wilson (112 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions) and Demps (52 tackles) are the starting safeties. James Butler, Quentin Harris and rookie Charlie Peprah are the backups.

Special Teams: Jay Feely (148 points, 35-42 field goals, 43-43 extra points) and Jeff Feagles (42.1) return at kicker and punter respectively. Travis Dorsch has been brought in as competition for Feagles. Morton (9.6) or McQuarters (11.7) will return punts, while Willie Ponder (26.9) led the league in kick returns.

Outlook: The Giants have all the pieces in place to make another run at the division title and a potential conference championship. The defense got older, but it's actually better as far as talent goes. Tiki is no spring chicken either, but he still has some gas left in the tank. Moss and his 4.3 speed will make it a nightmare for defenses when he's in with Burress, Toomer, Barber and Shockey. The defense with Strahan, Umenyiora, Pierce and Arrington looks pretty scary. Also, Manning is in his third year and that's the time when most talented quarterbacks have a breakout year. Who knows, Coughlin may actually smile this season.

Prediction: Despite some old age and a lack of depth at the defensive tackle spot, this team looks like a legitimate contender for NFC East and conference championships. The division is unbelievably tough, but if the three new starters in the secondary gel and injuries and father time stay away from some, this could be a special year in Giant land. New York will finish 11-5 or 12-4.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

NFL 2006: Dallas Cowboys

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the Dallas Cowboys.)

Last season the Dallas Cowboys finished 9-7 and just missed the NFL playoffs. Just missing didn't sit well with owner Jerry Jones and head coach Bill Parcells and some major changes were made in the offseason.

Most notably was bringing in wide receiver Terrell Owens, a lightning rod for media attention and controversy. Owens played in only seven games with the Eagles in 2005 after being suspended for comments made about Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia organization.

Will Owens keep his mouth shut in Dallas and be a team player or will Parcells patience wear thin very quickly? That is the main question on the minds of many Cowboy fans in 2006.

Offense: Drew Bledsoe (3,639 yards, 23 touchdowns) returns to helm the Cowboy ship. He looked great at times and not so great last year as evidenced by his 17 interceptions. The offensive line deserves some of the blame, but with Owens in the fold, Bledsoe has to be more consistent. The backups are Tony Romo and Drew Henson, not much to write home about, so Parcells needs Bledsoe to be healthy and consistent in 2006.

The running game has quality depth with Julius Jones (993 yards, five touchdowns), Marion Barber (538 yards, five TDs) and Tyson Thompson all seeing significant playing time last season. Lousaka Polite is the fullback.

Keyshawn Johnson is gone but Owens (47-763-6) is a star receiver, despite his big mouth and overbearing personality. Terry Glenn (62-1,1136-7) is a solid, steady possession receiver who is still Bledsoe's favorite target. After the starting duo, there isn't much. Patrick Crayton (22-341-2), Terrance Copper and rookie Skyler Green will have to step it up.

Jason Witten is one of the top five tight ends in the NFL and gives Bledsoe a nice safety valve if things get hairy. Witten keeps improving every season so expect him him to top his 66 catches for 757 yards and six scores in 2005. Dan Campbell split so look for rookie Anthony Fasano to be Witten's backup.

The offensive line was atrocious last season, giving up a team record 50 sacks with Bledsoe being dumped 49 times. Parcells went and picked up Kyle Kosier from Denver and Jason Fabini from the Jets in hopes of improving the situation. Al Johnson returns at center, while Marco Rivera and Kosier will hold down the guard spots. Flozell Adams, who missed all of 2005 due to injury, returns at left tackle and Fabini will hold down the right side. Rob Pettiti, Andre Gurode and rookies Pat McQuistan and E.J. Whitley provide some depth.

Defense: The Cowboy defense is young, tough, talented and getting better all the time. Parcells has always been a coach who builds the defense up first and he's made no exception to that rule in Dallas.

The defensive line is anchored by Marcus Spears and Greg Ellis (eight sacks) at the ends and Jason Ferguson at nose tackle. Chris Canty, Kenyon Coleman and rookie Montavious Stanley are quality backups.

Scott Fujita is history and Dat Nguyen retired but the Cowboys went out and improved the linebacker position by drafting Bobby Carpenter from Ohio State and signing Akin Ayodele away from Jacksonville. The amazing Demarcus Ware (58 tackles, eight sacks) and Ayodele (70 tackles) will patrol the outside, while Bradie James (93 tackles) and Carpenter will be in the middle. Al Singleton, Scott Shanle and Kevin Burnett will see action as well.

Terence Newman (59 tackles, three picks) needs to be more consistent at cornerback. He was rated as a can't miss prospect coming out of college, but he has yet to realize his full potential. Anthony Henry (48 tackles, three interceptions) starts at the other corner, while Aaron Glenn (four interceptions)is the nickel back. Battering ram Roy Williams (81 tackles, three picks, 2.5 sacks) is one of the best at strong safety and Keith Davis (66 tackles) returns at free safety. Free agent Marcus Coleman and rookie Pat Watkins supply depth. Davis was recently shot in a drive-by, but is expected to make a full recovery.

Special Teams: The Cowboys kicking game was horrible last season with Billy Cundiff, Jose Cortez and Shaun Suisham all getting cracks at the job. Jones went out and grabbed Mike Vanderjagt from the Colts to immediately give Dallas a top-echelon kicker. Despite missing a key field goal in the playoffs against Pittsburgh, Vanderjagt (121 points, 23-25 field goals, 52-52 extra points) is one of the top three kickers in the league and will give Dallas two or three more wins on its record. Mat McBriar (42.5) returns as punter. Thompson (24.5) returns kicks and Crayton (7.2) handles punt return duties.

Outlook: The Cowboys are loaded on defense and T.O. and Vanderjagt are huge upgrades. Parcells has a history of taking teams to the Super Bowl in his fourth season (Giants and Patriots), but there are some problems. The team has very little depth on offense, especially at quarterback and the line. If any starter goes down, especially Bledsoe, it could be trouble. Plus, Dallas is in the toughest division in football with all four teams capable of making the playoffs. They will beat up on each other all season. Still, with Parcells in charge and a lights out defense the future is bright for Cowboy fans. If the line holds up, Owens keeps his mouth shut and Bledsoe stays healthy, Dallas will make a run at the division and the playoffs.

Prediction: Owens, Vanderjagt and an improved offensive line will give the Cowboys a few more wins and a playoff berth in 2006. The Cowboys will finish 10-6 or 11-5.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

NFL 2006: San Diego Chargers

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the San Diego Chargers.)

You have to feel a little bit for Marty Schottenheimer. I mean the guy is the best coach in the Super Bowl era who hasn't won a championship. He's recorded 191 career victories and taken the Chargers to 12-4 and 9-7 marks in the past two seasons. When he took over San Diego, the Bolts were a dismal 4-12 team.

Marty returns for his fifth season in San Diego and hopes to take his team to the playoffs after just missing a season ago.

Offense: The big news on offense is that Drew Brees is gone and Philip Rivers has taken over. The front office felt that with all the money they've invested in Rivers it was time to give him a chance. It's a decision that could come back to haunt them.

Brees was a proven commodity. He led the team to a 21-11 mark in two seasons, including a 12-4 record and an NFC West title in 2004. Rivers is entering his third year, a time when most young, developing quarterbacks start hitting their stride. The problem is he's hardly played a lick in his first two seasons in San Diego. His performance in 2006 will be key to the playoff aspirations of the Chargers. A. J. Feeley and rookie Charlie Whitehurst will be the backups.

The one place San Diego isn't concerned about is running back, that's because L.T. roams the backfield. LaDainian Tomlinson is arguably the best all-purpose back in the game today as evidenced by his 1,462 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns, to go along with 51 receptions for 370 yards and two scores. He can do it all and even more than that. Michael Turner (335 yards) and Darren Sproles are capable backups. Lorenzo Neal, one of the best fullbacks in the game, returns for his 14th season.

The wide receive position is one of concern for Schottenheimer. Keenan McCardell (70-917-9) is no spring chicken and Reche Caldwell is gone. One or two of the young bucks, Eric Parker (57-725-3), Vincent Jackson or Kassim Osgood must step up the production.

No such problems exist at tight end. San Diego has the best offensive tight end in the business in Antonio Gates. The undrafted, former basketball player followed his record breaking 2004 season with 89 receptions for 1,101 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. The Tomlinson-Gates-McCardell combo is a dangerous one for opposing defenses to stop. Brandon Manumaleuna and Aaron Shea were brought over from the Rams and Browns respectively to supply depth.

The offensive line returns intact. Nick Hardwick just signed a nice contract extension and will be under center for the next seven years, Kris Dielman and Mike Goff return at guard and Shane Olivea and Roman Oben man the tackle slots. Rookie Marcus McNeill, Leander Jordan, Scott Mruczkowski and Wes Sims are quality reserves.

Defense: The Charger defense was stout against the run, but got burnt quite a bit defending the pass. Schottenheimer is hoping that his offseason moves will help rectify the problem.

Jamal Williams is back to anchor the middle at nose tackle. Williams made 53 stops last season and was a force at shutting down the middle. Luis Castillo (49 tackles, 3.5 sacks) returns at one end after a solid rookie season and Igor Olshansky occupies the other end spot. Jacques Cesaire and Ryon Bingham will see action as well.

The linebackers are the strength of the Charger defense and leading the way is outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, the 2005 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Merriman recorded 10 sacks and made 57 tackles in a stellar freshman campaign. Steve Foley (4.5 sacks) is set at the other outside spot, while Randall Godfrey (76 tackles) and Donnie Edwards (152 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions) are on the inside. Shawn Phillips (seven sacks), Matt Wilhelm and rookie Tim Dobbins are key reserves.

Quentin Jammer (72 tackles) and Drayton Florence (54 tackles) return at corner, but neither had an interception last year, so San Diego drafted Antonio Cromartie in the first round of this years draft. Cromartie missed all of last season at Florida State with a knee injury, but has tons of talent and potential and could lay claim to a starting spot before training camp is over. Terrence Kiel (58 tackles) and Bhawoh Jue (47 tackles, three interceptions) are back at safety. Marlon McRee was brought in from Carolina to challenge for a job.

Special Teams: The special teams are solid with kicker Nate Kaeding (112 points, 21-24 field goals, 49-49 extra points), punter Mike Scifres (43.7) and return man Sproles (24.3 kickoffs, 6.0 punts).

Outlook: The 2006 season rests on the shoulders of Philip Rivers. Being a young, untested quarterback, teams are going to line up eight men in the box to stop L.T. and force Rivers to beat them threw the air. The Chargers have some solid weapons on offense (Gates, Tomlinson, McCardell), but they need Rivers and one of the other receivers to step up. The defense is mostly a young, aggressive group that keeps improving. The problem is lack of depth. If any of the key starters go down, particularly on the defensive line, this defense could be in serious trouble. In the end, Rivers will be the key to the season. If he performs like he did in college, watch out for the Chargers, if he struggles, another disappointing season is on the horizon.

Prediction: The Chargers are a young, talented up-and-coming team who are only a few missing pieces away from being serious title contenders. They could have easily been a 12-4 team last season, but lost some close games when leading in the fourth quarter. The Chargers will drop back a little this season as Rivers struggles. San Diego will finish 7-9 or 8-8.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

NFL 2006: Oakland Raiders

(This is the Corners look at the upcoming NFL season. For the next 32 days we'll be previewing each team and their prospects for the 2006 season. Today we look at the Oakland Raiders.)

Owner Al Davis, frustrated by another lackluster season that saw his Oakland Raiders finish 4-12, went back to the past to help solve the problems of the present. Davis hired Art Shell, who coached Oakland from 1989-94, to return to the helm and right the Raider ship.

Shell, an NFL Hall of Fame tackle for Oakland, had a 54-38 record and won three division titles in his first stint with the Raiders. Davis is hoping that some of the old Silver and Black magic will rub off on the 2006 squad.

Offense: Kerry Collins was ineffective last season and let go. The Raiders acquired the talented, but dreadfully inconsistent, Aaron Brooks from the New Orleans Saints to replace Collins. Brooks (2,882-13-17) was given every chance to shine in his six years with New Orleans and never was able to break through. Perhaps a change of scenery will do him good, but I doubt it. Andrew Walter and Marques Tuiasosopo are the backups, but either one will get the call if Brooks struggles.

Lamont Jordan thrived in his first starting opportunity, gaining 1,025 yards and nine touchdowns rushing. He also caught 70 passes for 563 yards and two scores. Justin Fargas is the number two back. Zack Crockett returns at fullback.

Randy Moss struggled in his first season at Oakland which is one of the reasons Collins wasn't asked back. Moss (60-1,005-8) will be joined by Jerry Porter (76-942-5)to form a decent combo. Doug Gabriel (37-554-3), Ron Curry and Alvis Whitted round out the solid receiving corps. Courtney Anderson (24-303-3) and free agent acquisition Marcellus Rivers are at tight end.

The offensive line returns intact with Jake Grove at center, Brad Badger and Langston Walker and guard, and Robert Gallery and Barry Sims at tackle. Adam Treu, free agent pickups Cameron Spikes and Kelvin Garmon and rookies Kevin Boothe and Paul McQuistan provide depth.

Defense: Last season the Raider defense could rush the passer real well. The problem was that's all they could do. The secondary was burnt many, many times and the run defense was almost non-existent. Oakland gave up 383 points and Shell wants to see major improvement right away.

Derek Burgess was a free agent steal last season. He led the league in sacks with 16 and teams with Bobby Hamilton at defensive end. Lance Johnstone (7.5 sacks, who left Minnesota to come back to Oakland, and Tyler Brayton will see action in the end rotation. Warren Sapp (five sacks) and Tommy Kelly (4.5 sacks) anchor the interior of the line. Antajj Hawthorne and Terdell Sands are the backups.

Kirk Morrison (116 tackles) had an excellent rookie season at strong-side linebacker and will be joined by Danny Clark (113 tackles)in the middle. Free agent Robert Thomas, Grant Irons and rookie Thomas Howard will compete for the weak side spot.

Charles Woodson and Renaldo Hill are gone and Shell will look to Fabian Washington, Nnamadi Asomogha and free agents Duane Starks and Tyrone Poole to emerge at cornerback. Stuart Schweigert (87 tackles, two interceptions) returns at free safety and Derrick Gibson is back at strong safety. Watch out for rookie Michael Huff. He has the ability to play corner and safety and should break into the starting lineup very quickly. The secondary must improve its play and create more turnovers. Last season, Oakland was dead last in interceptions with five.

Special Teams: Sebastian Janikowski (90 points, 20-30 field goals, 30-30 extra points) was inconsistent last season. Shane Lechler (45.7) is the best punter in the NFL. Chris Carr returns kicks (24.0) and punts (5.5) for the Raiders.

Outlook: Al Davis did the right thing by hiring Art Shell. He demands hard work and maximum effort from his players and the Raiders need the discipline he brings to the table. They will play harder and tougher, but this is a team with a below average defense and quarterback. The receiving corps is solid as is Jordan at running back, but the lack of a true leader on the offensive or defensive side of the ball will hurt this team.

Prediction: Shell will have the Raiders playing better football by seasons end. Unfortunately for Oakland fans, they'll find out up close how frustrating Aaron Brooks can be and how disruptive Moss will be when he doesn't get the ball again this season. The Raiders will go 3-13 or 4-12.

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