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NFL

NFC South loads up to challenge Bucs

The Falcons, Saints and Panthers have made trades and signed free agents to improve their rosters.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003


The NFC South had it all last season. Now it has even more.

Shortly after Tampa Bay won Super Bowl XXXVII, executives huddled with their coaches in Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina to mold their team into one that could beat the Bucs.

The draft is April 26-27, and the first game of 2003 is about five months away. But since the Super Bowl, the gap between the Bucs and the rest of the NFC South has narrowed. "We've just each gotten more competitive. Tampa Bay has forced us all to do that," said Ray Anderson, the Falcons vice president for football operations. "I don't think there's any question that here in the South, the beacon is Tampa Bay. So everybody's got to do what they have to do to be able to match up better with Tampa Bay."

The Bucs are without peer, but the Falcons have receiver Peerless Price, having traded a first-round pick for Buffalo's franchise player. Are the Saints alive? New Orleans has two first-round picks and has improved its defense. And the Panthers don't look nearly as toothless on offense with running back Stephen Davis.

"We improved a lot statistically, but what it comes down to is winning close games," Falcons coach Dan Reeves said. "We lost twice to Tampa Bay. We have to match up with them. New Orleans couldn't beat us. Tampa Bay couldn't beat New Orleans."

Carolina had trouble beating any division opponent, going 1-5 against the South and 6-4 against the rest of the league. But in two games, the Bucs scored just two touchdowns against the Panthers.

Don't look now, but the division that produced a world champion, two playoff teams and three teams with winning records has improved. "I really don't pay much attention whether the other teams do a better job than we do," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "Because teams almost completely remake themselves on a yearly basis, to me, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Focus on your own team. Focus on your own schemes and how you get better and then deal with them when you face them.

"I'm just a believer that the division right now, maybe there's a better one, but I don't know what it is."

Here's a look at why McKay should start worrying:

ATLANTA FALCONS

At 5 feet 11, 190 pounds, Price is right for the Falcons. He gives quarterback Michael Vick, the best rising talent in the league, a deep threat who caught 94 passes for 1,252 yards and nine touchdowns last season

"We needed somebody to go get it and stretch the field, to keep guys from daring us to pass to beat them," Anderson said. "We think by adding Peerless, who's a vertical guy, a deep threat, plus a guy who can also run after the catch, he and Mike have a chance to be something special."

Defensively, the Falcons overhauled their secondary, dumping cornerback Ashley Ambrose and adding two cornerbacks from the Packers: Tyrone Williams (5-11, 193) and Tod McBride (6-1, 208). They also signed Bengals safety Cory Hall.

"We had to do something there," Anderson said. "We think it allows us to maybe more physically match up with those big receivers down in Tampa."

Reeves said he expects more from Vick.

"When he learns to beat people throwing the football, I don't know what he's going to do because he makes so many plays now with his running ability," he said. "When he gets it, he'll be extremely dangerous."

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

9-7, third in NFC South

Half of the Bucs' losses came to the Saints, 26-20 in overtime in the season opener in Tampa and 23-20 at the Superdome. But New Orleans collapsed, losing its last three to miss the playoffs.

"We fixed the offense last year," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "We've got a lot of speed, and we're scoring a lot of points. Then all of a sudden, teams start coming after us the same way, spreading us out. All of a sudden, it's a shootout -- 38-35, 35-32.

"We've got to somehow fix the defense and get some more speed and better players over there." That could change soon. Thanks to last year's trade that sent Ricky Williams to Miami, New Orleans has the 17th and 18th picks of the draft. In all, it has four choices in the first three rounds.

The Saints also traded for Patriots safety Tebucky Jones and signed Steelers offensive tackle Wayne Gandy, Rams tight end Ernie Conwell and Rams punter Mitch Berger.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

7-9, fourth in NFC South

The Panthers went looking for answers, especially on offense. The 6-foot, 230-pound Davis is the kind of power back who always has given the Bucs trouble. Since 1999, he is second in the NFC with 4,975 rushing yards.

Carolina re-signed veteran quarterback Rodney Peete, but this season, he will have a safety net. Jake Delhomme, who threw 86 passes in six seasons with New Orleans, could push him. The Panthers improved their receiving corps, signing the Titans' Kevin Dyson and Rams' Ricky Proehl. Eagles guard Doug Brzezinski also will help. Are the Panthers ready to claw to the top of the division?

"If Kevin Dyson is 100 percent," coach John Fox said. "If (receiver) Steve Smith grows another year. If we get (running back) DeShaun Foster back. I think we definitely improved. I feel like we're better offensively than we were a year ago. Are we there yet? That would be a stretch. We've got to see how the draft goes."

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