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Team by team breakdown

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002


1) St. Louis Rams

1) St. Louis Rams

WELCOME ABOARD: LB Jamie Duncan, WR Terrence Wilkins, P Mitch Berger, G Heath Irwin.

JUMPED SHIP: WR Az-Zahir Hakim, OT Ryan Tucker, LB London Fletcher, LB Mark Fields, RB Robert Holcombe, LB Brian Allen, TE Jeff Robinson, OT Rod Jones.

WORD ON THE STREET: They are loaded for bear once again. As long as QB Kurt Warner and RB Marshall Faulk stay healthy, the sky is the limit.

THE DEAL BREAKER: If Warner goes down, this becomes an average team. So far they've been able to avoid major injuries to key players, but how long can their luck last?

2) Philadelphia Eagles

WELCOME ABOARD: S Blaine Bishop, LB Shawn Barber.

JUMPED SHIP: LB Jeremiah Trotter, LB Mike Caldwell, OL Jim Pyne, C Bubba Miller, S Damon Moore.

WORD ON THE STREET: Losing Trotter hurt, but QB Donovan McNabb remains as dangerous as ever. Plus, Jim Johnson's defense will once again be a league leader, putting this team in line for another Super Bowl run.

THE DEAL BREAKER: It's always McNabb. If he gets hurt, everything changes. Also, running back Duce Staley, the subject of offseason trade rumors, must deliver.

3) Indianapolis Colts

WELCOME ABOARD: Tony Dungy (coach), CB Walt Harris, WR Qadry Ismail, DT James Cannida, QB Brock Huard, RB Ben Gay.

JUMPED SHIP: Jim Mora (coach), TE Ken Dilger, CB Jeff Burris, WR Jerome Pathon, G Steve McKinney.

WORD ON THE STREET: This team won't look anything like the disheveled club we saw last season. With running back Edgerrin James healthy, the offense is as explosive as any in the league. And Dungy, a defensive guru, already is having an impact on the once-weak defense.

THE DEAL BREAKER: One word: defense. If they rank anywhere near 26th in the league again, they'll have no shot at the postseason. The additions of Cannida and rookie defensive end Dwight Freeney instantly upgrade the unit, but how long will it take for Dungy's influence to pay dividends?

4) Pittsburgh Steelers

WELCOME ABOARD: K Todd Peterson, LB James Farrior, QB Charlie Batch, WR Antwaan Randle-El.

JUMPED SHIP: K Kris Brown, WR Bobby Shaw, LB Earl Holmes, LB Mike Jones.

WORD ON THE STREET: Virtually everyone is back from a team that, many people felt, should have gone to the Super Bowl. Expectations are high for another big season, and there's every reason to believe this team could deliver. Look for rookie Randle-El to make an impact right away.

THE DEAL BREAKER: As usual, the big question is the quarterback. Sure, Kordell Stewart had a solid season, but he slumped in the postseason. This team will go only as far as Stewart takes it.

5) San Francisco 49ers

WELCOME ABOARD: QB Cade McNown, DE Jim Flanigan, DL Sean Moran, S Tony Parrish.

JUMPED SHIP: TE Greg Clark, LB Terry Killens, QB Rick Mirer, S Lance Schulters, OG Ray Brown.

WORD ON THE STREET: The key players who made last season a huge success not only are back but are more experienced. QB Jeff Garcia appears to only be getting better.

THE DEAL BREAKER: The Rams. The Niners can't seem to beat them, which means they'll likely have to take the wild-card route in order to get to the Super Bowl.

6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

WELCOME ABOARD: Jon Gruden (coach), WR Keenan McCardell, RB Michael Pittman, TE Ken Dilger, OG Kerry Jenkins, WR Joe Jurevicius, WR Marquise Walker.

JUMPED SHIP: Tony Dungy (coach), RB Warrick Dunn, WR Jacquez Green, WR Reidel Anthony, CB Donnie Abraham, LB Jamie Duncan, DE Steve White, TE Dave Moore, P Mark Royals.

WORD ON THE STREET: Under Gruden, the Bucs offense hopes to be vastly improved. How much, though, remains to be seen. Still, the talent is there to make a Super Bowl run. Of course, that's been the case the past few years, but this team has always come up short.

THE DEAL BREAKER: One word: offense. Even without defensive end Marcus Jones (injured knee), Monte Kiffin's defense will be stellar again. If the offense can put up three touchdowns a game, this team will be dangerous. But more injuries to key defensive players such as Jones could wreck everything because depth may be a problem.

7) New York Jets

JUMPED SHIP: G Kerry Jenkins, LB James Farrior, WR Matthew Hatchette, T Ryan Young, CB Aaron Glenn, S Victor Green, P Tom Tupa

WORD ON THE STREET: The loss of both starting cornerbacks will hurt, but the addition of veteran Pro Bowl cornerback Donnie Abraham will ease that hit. He joins what should be another solid defensive unit that could carry this club deep into the playoffs.

THE DEAL BREAKER: The team lost offensive line coach Bill Muir and starting guard Kerry Jenkins to Tampa Bay. Don't underestimate those moves. The line is key to getting star running back Curtis Martin another 1,000-yard season, which is a must if this team is to make another postseason appearance.

8) Green Bay Packers

WELCOME ABOARD: WR Terry Glenn, DE Joe Johnson, LB Hardy Nickerson, RB Jason Brookins.

JUMPED SHIP: WR Antonio Freeman, LB Bernardo Harris, DT Santana Dotson, RB Dorsey Levens, WR Corey Bradford, WR Bill Schroeder, S Billy Jenkins, DE John Thierry, QB Josh Heupel.

WORD ON THE STREET: Yes, quarterback Brett Favre is getting older, but his arm seems as strong as it did his rookie year. He gives them playoff potential despite the loss of some key players in free-agency.

THE DEAL BREAKER: Younger receivers Donald Driver and Javon Walker will have to play prominent roles, particularly if Glenn gets into more trouble. If Glenn returns to his Pro Bowl level, this club can get deep into the postseason.

9) Miami Dolphins

WELCOME ABOARD: Norv Turner (offensive coordinator), RB Ricky Williams, DE Rob Burnett, P Mark Royals, OT Leon Searcy, OL Jamie Nails.

JUMPED SHIP: RB Lamar Smith, DE Kenny Mixon, WR O.J. McDuffie, S Brian Walker, TE Hunter Goodwin, QB Cade McNown, RB J.J. Johnson.

WORD ON THE STREET: They're talking Super Bowl in Miami, namely because Williams might finally provide the consistent, game-breaking runner the team has lacked for years. We'll see. More important might be Turner's influence on an offense that has lacked explosiveness.

THE DEAL BREAKER: If Miami's offense is vastly improved because of Williams and Turner, look out. The defense should be solid again and the schedule is lighter with Indy gone from the division. As for the Super Bowl talk, that might still be a stretch.

10) Oakland Raiders

WELCOME ABOARD: LB Bill Romanowski, CB Terrance Shaw, QB Rick Mirer, S Rod Woodson.

JUMPED SHIP: S Marquez Pope, DT Grady Jackson, LB William Thomas, QB Rodney Peete, CB Eric Allen, OG Steve Wisniewski.

WORD ON THE STREET: There's enough talent leftover from last season, plus enough excellent draft picks, to make a Super Bowl charge again. Key players are aging (WR Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, QB Rich Gannon) but still are effective.

THE DEAL BREAKER: Players have to rally around new coach Bill Callahan. Also, the defense can't get gouged against the run as it did last season.

11) Denver Broncos

WELCOME ABOARD: TE Shannon Sharpe, OT Blake Brockemeyer, WR Rob Moore, LB Terry Killens, S Izell Reese.

JUMPED SHIP: RB Terrell Davis, LB Bill Romanowski, QB Gus Frerotte, CB Eric Davis, WR Keith Poole, OT Trey Teague, FB Howard Griffith, DT Leon Lett.

WORD ON THE STREET: Losing Davis to retirement won't hurt this club because he hasn't played much lately anyway. The return of Sharpe and receiver Ed McCaffrey will be huge, especially for quarterback Brian Griese, who needs to silence his critics with a big season.

THE DEAL BREAKER: Injuries. They wrecked this club last season, taking out McCaffrey and later Griese. If both stay healthy, attending Broncos games will be fun again -- and not just because they have a new stadium.

12) Tennessee Titans

WELCOME ABOARD: S Lance Schulters, FB Greg Comella, RB Robert Holcomb, OL Aaron Graham.

JUMPED SHIP: S Blaine Bishop, WR Chris Sanders, LB Eddie Robinson, DT Jason Fisk, LB Greg Favors.

WORD ON THE STREET: Jeff Fisher won't allow another slump like last season. Running back Eddie George and quarterback Steve McNair are healthy and eager to prove last season's slide was a fluke.

THE DEAL BREAKER: The loss of Bishop and Robinson on defense can't be underestimated. Somebody has to make the kind of plays they were known for making to give McNair and George time to work their magic. Another injury-marred season for McNair or George could spell disaster. Again.

13) Washington Redskins

WELCOME ABOARD: Steve Spurrier (coach), LB Jeremiah Trotter, DL Santana Dotson, QB Danny Wuerffel, WR Jacquez Green, LB Jessie Armstead, OG Larry Moore, DE Renaldo Wynn, OL Kip Vickers.

JUMPED SHIP: DE Kenard Lang, C Cory Raymer, KR Michael Bates, TE Stephen Alexander, LB Shawn Barber, TE Marco Battaglia, DE Marco Coleman, WR Leslie Shepherd, OG Dave Szott.

WORD ON THE STREET: This team was the talk of the preseason because of Spurrier, whose Fun 'n' Gun offense seems poised to light up the league. But the team probably will go only as far as Marvin Lewis' defense will take it.

THE DEAL BREAKER: As pass-happy as they are, the 'Skins have to run the ball effectively to win at this level. If Stephen Davis doesn't get running room, Spurrier's ballclub might fade down the stretch.

14) New England Patriots

JUMPED SHIP: QB Drew Bledsoe, WR Terry Glenn, LB Bryan Cox, CB Terrance Shaw, LB Andy Katzenmoyer

WORD ON THE STREET: There are questions about whether this club can work the same magic as last season, getting supreme performances out of lesser-name players. Tops on that list is quarterback Tom Brady, who no longer has veteran Drew Bledsoe as a safety net.

THE DEAL BREAKER: If Brady and Co. turn out to be one-hit wonders, this team is sunk. With Glenn and Bledsoe gone, the team has no superstars and will have to get major production from unlikely places. Brady will play under a microscope and has to hold this club together with his leadership.

15) New Orleans Saints

JUMPED SHIP: QB Jeff Blake, RB Ricky Williams, OT Willie Roaf, DE Joe Johnson, LB Keith Mitchell, WR Willie Jackson, DT La'Roi Glover, OT Marcus Price, CB Steve Israel

WORD ON THE STREET: This team has had almost a complete overhaul, with the departures of Williams, Roaf, Johnson, Glover, Mitchell and Jackson being most significant. That came on the heels of their late-season dive in 2001 when they were outscored 160-52 in their final four games, all losses.

THE DEAL BREAKER: They replaced a lot of their departed talent with some quality names, but the team's success hinges on how quickly the new faces can get in synch. Also, young running back Deuce McAllister is taking over for Williams as the starter and must prove he's ready to be an every-down ballcarrier.

16) Chicago Bears

WELCOME ABOARD: QB Chris Chandler, RB Rahib Abdullah, LB Mike Caldwell, DE Keith McKenzie, S Damon Moore.

JUMPED SHIP: QB Shane Matthews, RB James Allen, S Tony Parrish, CB Walt Harris, OT Blake Brockermeyer, DE Carl Powell.

WORD ON THE STREET: Most of the key personnel from last season's playoff team is back, but another playoff appearance might not be on the horizon. Let's face it, this team can't keep winning by magic as it did a season ago. Reality sets in this season, which won't be too bad.

THE DEAL BREAKER: The Bears were excellent last season at winning close games. They will need to do the same this season, plus again have a standout defense, to have any shot at the postseason. That's not impossible, especially because they no longer have to contend with the Bucs in the division.

17) Cleveland Browns

WELCOME ABOARD: DE Kenard Lang, LB Earl Holmes, S Robert Griffith, RB J.J. Johnson, WR Chris Sanders.

JUMPED SHIP: OG Roman Oben, DE Greg Spires, RB Ben Gay, DE Keith McKenzie, OG Jeremy McKinney.

WORD ON THE STREET: Butch Davis continues to upgrade this team, which narrowly missed the playoffs last season. Holmes tightens a solid defense and rookie running back William Green is expected to shine right away, making this team a good playoff bet.

THE DEAL BREAKER: QB Tim Couch must continue to show he's making strides and should flourish with an improved running game at his disposal. But a significant injury to Couch could ruin bright prospects for this season.

18) Arizona Cardinals

WELCOME ABOARD: TE Freddie Jones, CB Duane Starks, FB Anthony Green.

JUMPED SHIP: RB Michael Pittman, WR Rob Moore, CB Corey Chavous, CB Tom Knight.

WORD ON THE STREET: This is a team on the rise and could be the surprise team of the season. Pittman and Moore are key losses, but Plummer continues to improve and the additions of Starks and Jones will help noticeably.

THE DEAL BREAKER: Provided Plummer doesn't self-destruct, the big weakness is defense, particularly in the secondary, which is vulnerable against the pass. If Starks can hold this group together, the Cards could soar.

19) Minnesota Vikings.

WELCOME ABOARD: WR Derrick Alexander, DE Kenny Mixon, LB Henri Crockett, DB Corey Chavous, DE Lorenzo Bromell, WR Sean Dawkins, RB Moe Williams.

JUMPED SHIP: WR Cris Carter, LB Ed McDaniel, WR Jake Reed, K Gary Anderson, LB Kailee Wong, S Robert Griffith, CB Dale Carter, S Orlando Thomas, P Mitch Berger.

WORD ON THE STREET: New coach Mike Tice supposedly has corrected the team's chemistry problems. This team wants to win again and still has the weapons to be explosive.

THE DEAL BREAKER: It all depends on WR Randy Moss. He reportedly is a changed man and Tice is committed to getting him the ball more. If it happens, the Vikes will soar.

20) Seattle Seahawks

WELCOME ABOARD: CB Doug Evans, DT Brandon Mitchell, OT Jerry Wunsch.

JUMPED SHIP: QB Brock Huard, DE Michael Sinclair, TE Christian Fauria, OT Todd Weiner, CB Ike Charlton, RB Charlie Rogers.

WORD ON THE STREET: There might have been playoffs in this team's future had starting quarterback Trent Dilfer gotten hurt in preseason. As it is, they'll be hard pressed to get much above .500, especially having to play the Niners and Rams twice a season.

THE DEAL BREAKER: Backup QB Matt Hasselbeck needs RB Shaun Alexander to have another productive season to take the pressure off the passing game until Dilfer returns. If the running game breaks down, coach Mike Holmgren could be sent packing.

21) Atlanta Falcons

WELCOME ABOARD: RB Warrick Dunn, DB Allen Rossum, WR Jeff Graham, DE John Thierry, OT Todd Weiner, WR Travis McGriff, RB T.J. Duckett.

JUMPED SHIP: QB Chris Chandler, RB Jamal Anderson, WR Terance Mathis, LB Henri Crockett, FS Ronnie Bradford.

WORD ON THE STREET: QB Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn form arguably the fastest backfield in the league, and Duckett is a younger Jerome Bettis. In a softer NFC South division, the Falcons could run past many opponents and challenge for a playoff spot.

THE DEAL BREAKER: It all rests with one man: Vick. He's the starter, but there are some doubts about his readiness. If he shows more polish this season and avoids drive-killing mistakes, this club could surpass all expectations.

22) Dallas Cowboys

WELCOME ABOARD: DT La'Roi Glover, CB Bryant Westbrook, LB Kevin Hardy.

JUMPED SHIP: QB Ryan Leaf, C Mark Stepnoski, S George Teague, S Izell Reese.

WORD ON THE STREET: This team continues to improve if only because its young players have a year of additional experience. The defense remains solid and quarterback Quincy Carter has impressed at times lately, which should help take some pressure off running back Emmitt Smith as he goes for Walter Payton's all-time rushing record.

THE DEAL BREAKER: The offense was terribly inconsistent last season, partly because Carter was banged up at times. With Rocket Ismail lost for the season, speed receiver Joey Galloway, who was woefully under-used last season, must become more involved for this team to scare anybody. Otherwise Smith's record-setting season will be the only thing worth celebrating.

23) Cincinnati Bengals.

JUMPED SHIP: WR Darnay Scott, S Chris Carter, TE Tony McGee, S Darryl Williams

WORD ON THE STREET: Once the Bungles, always the Bungles, right? While a host of starters return, things may never change significantly until they get a quality quarterback. Let's face it, Frerotte is only going to take you far, and Jon Kitna isn't much of an option.

THE DEAL BREAKER: Corey Dillon has to continue to post big numbers, which takes a lot of the pressure off the quarterback. And Peter Warrick has to step up in Scott's absence. But the lack of a solid defense may be this club's undoing.

24) Buffalo Bills

WELCOME ABOARD: QB Drew Bledsoe, FB Larry Centers, K Mike Hollis, WR Charles Johnson, LB London Fletcher, TE Dave Moore, OT Marcus Price, RB Richard Huntley, LB Eddie Robinson.

JUMPED SHIP: QB Rob Johnson, LB Sam Cowart, CB Ken Irvin, S Ken Carpenter, OT John Fina.

WORD ON THE STREET: The arrival of Bledsoe has brought new life to a team that was awful a season ago. He has looked solid, but it'll take a lot more to get this team back above .500.

THE DEAL BREAKER: Bledsoe has to perform well despite playing behind a suspect offensive line. It would help if some of the team's young players such as rookie offensive tackle Mike Williams and running back Travis Henry played above their heads.

25) San Diego Chargers

WELCOME ABOARD: Marty Schottenheimer (coach), CB Quentin Jammer, OT Sammie Williams, C Corey Raymer, TE Stephen Alexander, LB Donnie Edwards.

JUMPED SHIP: WR Freddie Jones, WR Jeff Graham, LB Sam Rogers.

WORD ON THE STREET: QB Drew Brees is the starter and gives them more flash and versatility than veteran Doug Flutie. Young guns such as running back LaDainian Tomlinson are a year older and more polished.

THE DEAL BREAKER: Starting a young quarterback can be risky. How quickly Brees matures will determine how good the team's season will be.

26) Kansas City Chiefs

WELCOME ABOARD: WR Johnnie Morton, K Morten Anderson, OT Willie Roaf, QB Jonathan Quinn.

JUMPED SHIP: WR Derrick Alexander, OT Victor Riley, K Todd Peterson, LB Donnie Edwards.

WORD ON THE STREET: The Chiefs didn't get hurt during free-agency, nor did they significantly help themselves. They should contend in the NFC West, but that's probably it.

THE DEAL BREAKER: League-leading rusher Priest Holmes carried this team a season ago and must do it again this time. Roaf ought to help lead the way to another run for the league rushing title.

27) New York Giants

WELCOME ABOARD: C Morris Unutoa.

JUMPED SHIP: LB Jesse Armstead, OT Lomas Brown, WR Joe Jurevicius, TE Howard Cross, FB Greg Comella, LB Jack Golden.

WORD ON THE STREET: This club is on the slide. One or two key injuries (QB Kerry Collins? RB Tiki Barber?) and things could get ugly. Coach Jim Fassel could be on the hot seat by midseason.

THE DEAL BREAKER: Collins has to have a big season. Being solid like last season (19 TDs, 16 INTs) isn't going to be enough with the lack of weapons on this team.

28) Carolina Panthers

WELCOME ABOARD: John Fox (coach), DE Julius Peppers, RB Lamar Smith, QB Rodney Peete, KR Michael Bates, LB Mark Fields, CB Terry Cousin, DL Shane Burton, LB Brian Allen.

JUMPED SHIP: RB Tim Biakabutuka, CB Doug Evans, QB Dameyune Craig, WR Donald Hayes, LB Dean Wells, RB Richard Huntley, WR Patrick Jeffers, DE Jason Peter.

WORD ON THE STREET: This team wasn't as bad as its 1-15 record, so expect a noticeably better showing this season. Peppers upgrades the defense and new offensive coordinator Dan Henning's system is far more suited to quarterback Chris Weinke's talents. Still, a winning record might be expecting too much.

THE DEAL BREAKER: Henning will tell you this club won't go anywhere if Weinke doesn't have a good season. After missing a lot of offseason work because of shoulder surgery, Weinke may be a little slow out of the gate. If he isn't clicking by Week 4, the season could easily go down the tubes.

29) Detroit Lions

WELCOME ABOARD: QB Joey Harrington, WR Az-Zahir Hakim, WR Bill Schroeder, OG Ray Brown, S Corey Harris, LB Jeff Gooch, CB Eric Davis, S Brian Walker.

JUMPED SHIP: QB Charlie Batch, WR Herman Moore, WR Johnnie Morton, CB Michael Westbrook, TE Pete Mitchell, TE David Sloan, DE Tracy Scroggins.

WORD ON THE STREET: The Lions will play at new Ford Field downtown, but that's probably the only thing exciting about this club. Hakim and Schroeder are nice pickups, but Detroit has a long way to go to get back to respectability.

THE DEAL BREAKER: You can't win in this league without a running game and the Lions didn't have one last season. RB James Stewart has been banged up in the preseason. Without a running game, young quarterback Mike McMahon is meat.

30) Houston Texans

WELCOME ABOARD: QB Chris Carr, RB James Allen, OT Tony Boselli, QB Kent Graham, K Kris Brown, LB Kailee Wong, OG Steve McKinney, WR Corey Bradford, LB Jeff Posey.

JUMPED SHIP: QB Danny Wuerffel, LB Robert Jones, LB Brian Allen.

WORD ON THE STREET: Everyone says this will be one of the best expansion teams in recent memory. Carr is legit and the team made excellent offseason moves. A .500 season isn't unreasonable.

THE DEAL BREAKER: This team needs to start fast and, except for games against Philadelphia and Indianapolis, it has an easy early schedule. But if they stumble out of the gate, things could go sour quickly.

31) Jacksonville Jaguars

WELCOME ABOARD: TE Pete Mitchell, WR Bobby Shaw, DE Marco Coleman, WR Patrick Johnson.

JUMPED SHIP: OT Tony Boselli, WR Keenan McCardell, DE Renaldo Wynn, CB Aaron Beasley, QB Jonathan Quinn, DT Gary Walker, LB Hardy Nickerson, LB Kevin Hardy, K Mike Hollis, WR Sean Dawkins.

WORD ON THE STREET: Wholesale changes took place in order to ease their salary-cap problems. There are enough weapons left for this team to be explosive, but there may be too many holes to fill to get to .500. Quarterback Mark Brunell and receiver Jimmy Smith, if he signs, are still Pro Bowl types, but they can't do it all.

THE DEAL BREAKER: Injuries have conspired to wreck this club's season the past two years. It can ill-afford having running back Fred Taylor on the sideline for an extended period again. If he can be a 1,000-yard rusher again, things won't be so bleak. Of course, if the distraction of Smith's holdout lingers into the season, the Jags may not recover.

32) Baltimore Ravens.

WELCOME ABOARD: QB Jeff Blake.

JUMPED SHIP: TE Shannon Sharpe, QB Elvis Grbac, DB Rod Woodson, DT Tony Siragusa, WR Qadry Ismail, LB Jamie Sharper, WR Jermaine Lewis, CB Duane Starks, OT Leon Searcy, RB Moe Williams.

WORD ON THE STREET: Unheralded Chris Redman is the starting quarterback, which should tell you how comprehensive the team's overhaul was this offseason. Too many key players were let go for salary-cap reasons for this club to contend for anything beyond last-place in the division.

THE DEAL BREAKER: If the defense can win a few games by itself, the season can be halfway saved. But without coordinator Marvin Lewis, who's in Washington, that isn't likely. Expect a struggle from the opening game until the finale.

-- Darrell Fry covers the NFL for the Times.

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