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Thursday, July 12, 2001
Ranking the NFC West

By Mike Golic
ESPN.com

NFC West
Team Golic's analysis
St. Louis Rams With the Rams, it's always about who's going to score next? Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim can all jump into the fray, which is why the Rams are special. They're playing on a track all the time, and they can attack in different ways, with Faulk being public enemy No. 1. They adapt so easily -- Kurt Warner went down, then Trent Green came in, then Warner came back. Throughout it all, they were still first in every major offensive category. The offense is the least of the Rams' worries. Considering their defense gave up the most points in the league last year, they'll have to improve -- they can't get much worse! They made fantastic moves to improve their defense during the off season, picking up Aeneas Williams, Mark Fields, Kim Herring, Damione Lewis and Adam Archuleta. Add those guys to Grant Wistrom (11 sacks last season), and linebacker London Fletcher, and the Rams defense suddenly looks somewhat formidable. In some areas they'll be young, but they'll be more athletic. The huge improvement on the defensive side should give the edge over the Saints in the West. They zoned in on their weaknesses, and went after them.

New Orleans Saints Injuries are always the question mark, but in the Saints' case, the injury to a key player will make all the difference. If Ricky Williams can stay healthy, he can be everything the Saints thought he could. Picking up Deuce McAllister was a great move for the Saints. McAllister does a nice job picking up the ball out of the backfield. The Saints will like what McAllister can do back there and how it can help the offense. Getting a running game is absolutely imperative, because then they can open up their passing game for Joe Horn, who had an incredible breakout season last year. The Saints' offensive line may be their strongest unit. They are one of the most cohesive lines in the NFL, and they have a bit of an attitude now. Neither Aaron Brooks nor Jeff Blake is a great quarterback, but they are both very good and capable of occasional great play. Barring injury, which goes for everybody, the Saints offense should be very, very good. Their defense has always been the Saints' signature, and this year should be no different. They led the league in sacks last year, and wreaked havoc every time their starting four put pressure on the opposing quarterback. Their defensive backs always had the opportunity to hang in coverage, because they could rush with just four guys. They may have to fill out a little at linebacker; why they let Mark Fields go I'll never know. There will be some questions on how they will replace Fields, but with the dominant D-line they have, the Saints have somewhat of a jump on everyone else.

San Francisco 49ers This will be an interesting year for San Francisco. They'll definitely be able to put some points on the board, and I really like their ability to hold on to the ball offensively. Last year, they tied for a league-low in interceptions, tied for second in a league-low in fumbles lost, and had only 19 turnovers. Jeff Garcia came into his own last year. But -- and it's a big but -- what are they going to do for a running game? Losing Charlie Garner will hurt big time. Garrison Hearst is coming back, but with the bad ankle it's hard to know what to expect from him. They picked up Kevan Barlow, a decent sized guy who can bounce it outside pretty well. Terrell Owens was their main receiver last year, but who is going to take up the slack from Jerry Rice's 75 receptions? Those are some big holes. I like what the Niners did defensively. They moved up in the draft to pick up Andre Carter, a good outside pass rusher, and linebacker Jamie Winborn has shown promise. Bryant Young will still be the anchor on the defensive line. It won't be an overly large defense -- it never really is in the NFC West -- they will play with athletic ability and speed.

Atlanta Falcons The Michael Vick experiment -- when and how he gets in -- will be interesting. Obviously, Chris Chandler is the starter, but he hasn't finished a full season since Jesus walked the earth. With good reason, the offensive line struggled in front of Chandler last year, giving up 61 sacks. He's a pocket passer, he's not escaping a lot, so he's going to get hit. They have Jamal Anderson back, who certainly came through with over 1,000 yards and 42 receptions last year. Terance Mathis is a big-time receiver, who, if he stays healthy, can get some big numbers up there. If the offensive line can stay together and if they can get a good running game, the Falcons just might have the makings of a decent offense. Defensively, the Falcons are smallish. They like to hit the gaps, especially on the D-line. When they went to the Super Bowl in 1998, they had 44 take-aways. They only had 25 last year; they need to get back to taking the ball away. Jessie Tuggle keeps going and going, but at some point they're going to have to let the younger guys get in there and play. They used to be more of a big-play defense, but they've dropped down a rung or two, and should be just average this year.

Carolina Panthers The Panthers will take a step back this year, because of their quarterback situation. George Seifert has made a commitment to go with the young guys. After failing to live up to the "next Elway" hype, Jeff Lewis is finally going to get his shot in Carolina. There's a lot of talk about Drew Brees and Michael Vick, but Chris Weinke may be the first of last year's draft class to see a snap in a NFL game. When a team's biggest question mark is its quarterback before the season even starts, there are going to be problems. Plus, they don't have a dominant running game -- Tim Biakabutuka led the team last year with just two rushing touchdowns. They will get Patrick Jeffers and Muhsin Muhammad back, which should help. But even at 100 percent, these guys won't be enough offensively to take control of games. The defense is just as mediocre as the offense. They don't have a lot of firepower up front, their linebackers are just okay, and their leading tackler is a DB. They have trouble stopping the run, which doesn't help them against the pass, and they rank low in every major defensive category. The Panthers will be a mediocre team from which much shouldn't be expected.