Thursday, May 3, 2007
Big questions for NFC teams
By John Clayton
Now that Peyton Manning has evolved into a Super Bowl quarterback, NFC franchises face double jeopardy. To win a Super Bowl, they must beat Manning or Tom Brady.
Until Manning and Brady show their ages or their teams start to get old, the Colts and Patriots are not only the teams to beat in the AFC, but they are the worst nightmares for the NFC teams they could face in the Super Bowl. Between them, Manning and Brady have four Super Bowl rings and are gearing for more.
While it's said defenses win championships, the biggest question facing the NFC is whether its teams are good enough at quarterback to beat these two in a big game.
Here are the other questions facing the NFC teams:
Do the Cardinals have the personnel to eventually switch to a 3-4 defense?
New coach Ken Whisenhunt is pretty well set on offense with Matt Leinart at quarterback, Edgerrin James in the backfield and a great three-receiver set. Finding the personality of the defense is now the key. Former coach Dennis Green assembled an undersized 4-3. As we saw in San Francisco the past couple of years, it's hard to make a quick conversion to a 3-4 because those schemes require bigger defenders to help stop the run. Chike Okeafor and Bertrand Berry have the athletic ability to be rush linebackers, but the team doesn't have enough big linemen. Defensive tackle Alan Branch, the team's second-round pick, will help the Cardinals get bigger. Expect the Cardinals to experiment with the 3-4 but stay a 4-3 on most of the early downs.
Can new coach Bobby Petrino take Michael Vick's game to the next level?
The Falcons cleared the books on challenges to Vick. They traded backup Matt Schaub to Houston, eliminating any worry Vick has to look over his shoulder. He probably didn't anyway. The guy is making $13 million a year, and he's the most physically gifted quarterback in football. But it's time for Vick to improve his accuracy. He completed only 52.6 percent of his passes last season, and he's connected on a subpar 53.8 percent in his career. Maybe he didn't fit into the West Coast offense, but it's Petrino's job to find the right one for Vick. Petrino brings in a quarterback-friendly offense from Louisville. It's a simple scheme, but Vick has to make it work.
What's the deal at safety?
Despite having a great draft, the Panthers didn't fill their safety needs. Mike Minter is in his last season. Nate Salley and Cam Newton are the next-best safeties. Other than re-signing Colin Branch, the Panthers have to look at the depleted safety market for answers. The organization made a wise choice in trading down in the draft's first round instead of just taking the next-best safety, Reggie Nelson (Jacksonville selected the Florida star 21st overall). Carolina had one of its best drafts in years in doing so. But the scramble for safety help continues. Coach John Fox will settle the differences with defensive tackle Kris Jenkins after shopping him in a trade. Jenkins needs a little motivation, so he will be fine. More will be needed from the defensive line to make the transition easier at safety.
Is Rex Grossman worth re-signing?
The Lance Briggs saga will roll on until training camp and the start of the regular season. Expect Briggs, who hates the franchise tag, to hold out until September. Trade efforts failed and no change is anticipated soon. Briggs knows he is in his final season with the Bears. He just has to decide if he wants to show up. Grossman has a different story. Like Lovie Smith a year ago, Grossman must prove himself to get a second contract from the Bears. Grossman took unfair heat last season. Injuries hurt him early in his career. Though Grossman's numbers weren't flashy, he stayed healthy all season, and he helped take the team to the Super Bowl. The offense likes him as its leader. The Bears are in the middle of a four-year run as a Super Bowl contender. They are the favorites again to win the NFC North. The division might not improve. Grossman is good enough to win the NFC North, but is he good enough to beat Peyton Manning or Tom Brady in a Super Bowl? How well he answers that question will determine whether he gets a new contract after this season.
Did the Cowboys make a mistake not drafting a top-flight receiver from a deep pool of talent?
Terry Glenn and Terrell Owens are in their 30s, and Owens is coming off major finger surgery. Patrick Crayton is a decent third receiver, but it's hard to project him as a starter. While the Cowboys did the right thing in the draft swap with Cleveland that netted them a first-round choice in 2008, they bypassed the chance to get one of the draft's best receivers. The Browns aren't expected to be good in 2007, so the Cowboys could be at the top of the draft looking at the best receiver.
The Cowboys also have to look at replacing left tackle Flozell Adams, who is in the final year of his contract. If Tony Romo takes a step back, they might have to look at a quarterback, too. Maybe the delay in getting a receiver will work. The Cowboys got a nice pass-rusher in Anthony Spencer in the first round. The offense needed some help at the skill positions. A receiver injury could be a major problem for the Cowboys.
Are the Lions good enough at quarterback?
Although Calvin Johnson is the fourth receiver the Lions have drafted in the first round in five years, president Matt Millen received applause for taking him. Johnson was the best player in the draft. Fantasy fans love the idea of following a three-receiver corps of Johnson, Roy Williams and Mike Furrey. But everything -- and I mean everything -- falls on the right arm of quarterback Jon Kitna. The Lions traded Josh McCown, Kitna's backup. If Kitna gets hurt, the Lions could be in for a world of hurt if Dan Orlovsky isn't ready to take over. Kitna loves playing quarterback for offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Martz has a magic way of getting the most out of quarterbacks, but he must have something to work with as the backup. Is Orlovsky good enough? The Eagles' season came crashing down two years ago when they didn't have the right backup. The Bucs' season blew up when Chris Simms was hurt.
Can Brett Favre be happy with the Packers' offseason?
Favre had a great time last season. The Packers went 8-8. Favre liked his young offensive line and his young receiver, Greg Jennings. Optimistic about the chances of going to the playoffs, Favre returned for another season. So far, he's been greeted with an offseason in which cornerback Frank Walker was the only acquisition in free agency. He lost his backfield mate, Ahman Green. The running game enters the unknown with rookie Brandon Jackson and Vernand Morency. Nothing was done at tight end. Everyone remembers how Favre struggled mentally and emotionally in the 4-12 season in 2005. He wondered why he came back. Favre hates to lose. He wants one more chance at a Super Bowl, but at the very least, he wants another shot at the playoffs. Football is fun for Favre, but he needs to have more winning to make it fun enough to stay motivated.
Did the Vikings make a mistake passing on Brady Quinn?
Last Saturday, the draft played out so well for the Vikings that they had the option of getting a franchise quarterback or a franchise running back. Quinn tempted them, but they went with Adrian Peterson. No one can argue about Peterson's talent. He's an angry runner and a great talent. Within a year, he should be among the elite backs in football. Watch how well he runs to his left behind Bryant McKinnie and Steve Hutchinson. Watch how well he runs in a division of light Cover 2 defenses. Once that excitement fades, though, the reality is Tarvaris Jackson is the starting quarterback and Quinn is no longer an option. Brad Childress is betting his Vikings' future on Jackson. He loves his arm, mobility and leadership. Jackson showed some flashes last season, but now he has the job for 16 games. If he fails, everyone is in trouble in Minnesota.
Can the Saints repeat the magic?
Perception is everything. A year ago, the Saints appeared to be among the least talented teams in football. But Drew Brees carried the offense and Reggie Bush added some spark to the running game. Bold decisions solidified the offensive line. With many picking the Saints to be early favorites in the NFC South, coach Sean Peyton knows this season won't be easy. The schedule is tougher. The Saints can no longer take teams by surprise. Teams will study the Saints' offense and figure ways to stop it. But the key is the Saints were good enough to go into the draft and take the best athletes available. They got a break in getting wide receiver Robert Meachem, who not only adds size but speed to the offense.
Did the Giants make a mistake in not getting a left tackle?
The Giants needed help at linebacker, cornerback and left tackle. They had only one first-round pick, so three problems couldn't be solved at once. The value on the board pointed to cornerback Aaron Ross from Texas. Left tackle Joe Staley of Central Michigan was another option. By letting a first-round left tackle pass, the Giants have to go ahead with their plan to move guard David Diehl to left tackle and hope that works. The concern is the psyche of QB Eli Manning. Manning is under a lot of heat because of his November and December struggles over the past two seasons. His accuracy dips as the thermometer falls. One reason for last year's drop-off was the poor play at left tackle. If the Diehl experiment doesn't work, Manning could be in trouble early in the season.
How will Donovan McNabb accept having Kevin Kolb as a potential threat behind him?
Heading into the draft, the Eagles really didn't have many needs. They fixed the linebacking problems by trading for Takeo Spikes. They've drafted well on the offensive and defensive lines for years. Kevin Curtis was signed to help the receiving corps. Other than taking safety Brandon Meriweather, who wasn't available when the Eagles selected, Andy Reid's best option was to trade down. Kolb wasn't in the plans for the Eagles. He just fell to them, and Reid made the pick. If you're McNabb, though, you have to question the rationale behind the pick. The Eagles didn't draft Kolb to be the inactive quarterback from week to week. Although Kolb probably will be the No. 3 in 2007, the Eagles will try to groom him into being a potential starter. McNabb just got over the bad emotions of the Terrell Owens signing. He had just reasserted himself as the leader of the offense. Now, he might have to be looking over his shoulder.
Have the Rams done enough on defense to challenge for the NFC West?
Head coach Scott Linehan has brought in about seven potential new starters on defense since coming to St. Louis. He also has extended the contracts of defensive end Leonard Little and linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. Tye Hill should develop into a much better cornerback after starting as a rookie. Adam Carriker will help the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett feels much better about the team's speed at linebacker, particularly with Will Witherspoon developing into a star in the middle. The problem remains stopping the run. The Rams gave up 4.9 yards a carry last season. Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy is in a contract year. Coaches had trouble getting him to work the schemes last year, but Kennedy's play at tackle is vital to the team's success.
Did the Seahawks successfully upgrade at guard and tight end?
Jerramy Stevens is gone as the starting tight end and backup Itula Mili retired. After failing to get Daniel Graham in free agency, the Seahawks ended up with 35-year-old Marcus Pollard for the NFL minimum. They re-signed backup Will Heller. Pollard's body is young at 35 because he was a basketball player in college, but can it still hold up through the regular season and the playoffs? The guard situation remains a little jumbled since the 2006 departure of Steve Hutchinson. They had to re-sign Chris Gray, who turns 37 this fall. Floyd (Pork Chop) Womack can't shake injuries. The hope is Rob Sims, a promising fourth-round choice. But the team hasn't totally settled the interior of its offensive line.
Is one of the league's best offseasons good enough to make the 49ers a playoff team?
The 49ers' ultimate goal was finding seven new starters on defense. That might have been a little ambitious, but it was a great offseason for the defense. The additions of cornerback Nate Clements and safety Michael Lewis complete the secondary. Patrick Willis and Tully Banta-Cain, along with Manny Lawson and Derek Smith, form a good linebacking corps. Aubrayo Franklin will help at nose tackle. The key is for Alex Smith to develop at quarterback. That process took a hit with the departure of offensive coordinator Norv Turner to San Diego. Head coach Mike Nolan believes he has that covered with his staff. He helped Smith by adding WR Ashley Lelie and Darrell Jackson to the receiving corps.
Do the Bucs have the three-technique tackle to make their defense work?
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin must be in heaven. After years of neglecting the defense in drafts and free agency, Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen gave him defensive end Gaines Adams, safety Sabby Piscitelli and linebacker Quincy Black. The day after the draft, the Bucs traded for Ryan Sims of the Chiefs. Sims could be the most important acquisition. Kiffin has been missing a big piece of his defense since Warren Sapp left for the Raiders. The three-technique tackle creates havoc along the line of scrimmage. Kiffin did a nice job in resurrecting the career of Chris Hovan, a former Vikings No. 1 pick who came to the Bucs at the minimum salary. Hovan played his way into a nice contract. Sims will try to do the same under Kiffin.
Can another safety help the pass rush?
Joe Gibbs thought LaRon Landry was the best defensive player in the draft, so he made him the sixth pick after repeated efforts to trade down. Now the Redskins have two of the most talented safeties in the league -- Landry and Sean Taylor, who was the fifth pick in the 2004 draft. The problem is the Redskins passed over a pass-rusher, Jamaal Anderson, to take Landry. The Redskins are calling all around to see if a veteran pass-rusher is available. The Redskins had only 19 sacks last season. Without any pressure on the quarterback, opponents had a 97.8 quarterback rating against them. Unless the Redskins can find a way to get a pass rush, Landy and Taylor might get a lot of opportunities to get tackles downfield.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.