NFC reports - NFL
Sporting News, The,  Feb 23, 2004  

ARIZONA CARDINALS Coach Dennis Green says only five players currently are considered starters--QB Josh McCown, C Pete Kendall, WR Anquan Boldin and LBs Raynoch Thompson and Ronald McKinnon. Missing are FS Dexter Jackson, LT L.J. Shelton and RG Leonard Davis. Green's statement probably was a motivational ploy; Shelton is a standout and was signed to a long-term deal, and Jackson got off to a slow start but made big plays. ... Coaches didn't wait to see if K Bill Gramatica could return from back surgery. The team told Gramatica, soon a restricted free agent, it wouldn't make him a tender offer. Neil Rackers, who has a strong leg, will step in. SOMETHING TO PROVE: Starting RT Anthony Clement is coming off a poor season and will be challenged. He was rusty after missing most of '02 with a torn triceps and didn't play as expected. There isn't a replacement, so the team could draft or add a free-agent tackle. ... SS Adrian Wilson hasn't made big plays, so coaches could ask him to lose 15 pounds to play corner. He's a restricted free agent, but the team won't commit to a deal without seeing some consistency in his play. ... DE Kyle Vanden Bosch has torn both ACLs and isn't a great pass rusher, but no one works harder. If healthy, he'll fight Dennis Johnson for the left end job.--Kent Somers

ATLANTA FALCONS WR Peerless Price should flourish in coordinator Greg Knapp's offense because Knapp is able and willing to make adjustments. Price doesn't dispute his first season was disastrous. But he didn't like that the former brain trust either could not or would not veer from game plans when the defense gave up a lead. Knapp's version of the West Coast offense will help free Price from shutdown corners by using him more efficiently on short routes. ... FB Justin Griffith is working to add muscle to his 232-pound frame. Griffith can run the ball if Warrick Dunn and T.J. Ducker need a breather, but Knapp needs him to be more explosive as a blocker. SOMETHING TO PROVE: OLB Matt Stewart isn't guaranteed a starting job with LBs Chris Draft, Keith Newman and Will Overstreet also competing for one of the two outside spots. Stewart's exceptional technique helps him create takeaways, and he's decent against the run. He needs to improve in pass coverage. Stewart was a weak link when opponents surprised with passes on first and second downs. ... QB Michael Vick needs to improve his mechanics to boost his poor career completion percentage. Position coach Mike Johnson made some headway in correcting his footwork last summer, but a fractured fibula stunted that progress.--George Henry

CAROLINA PANTHERS If SLB Mark Fields can get himself into football shape after finishing chemotherapy and be as effective as he was before his illness, the team could have one of the best groups of linebackers in the NFL. MLB Dan Morgan uses his speed to play at an elite level, and WLB Will Witherspoon had a breakthrough year. Morgan and Witherspoon are exceptionally quick, but Fields might be faster. If he comes back healthy, not many runners will get past this group. ... Look for a strong effort to extend the contract of QB Jake Delhomme in the offseason. Delhomme has showed he can be a long-term answer, and the team wants to give the position stability. ... It's unlikely the team will make a strong effort to re-sign free-agent WR Kevin Dyson. SOMETHING TO PROVE: LT Todd Steussie isn't the elite player he was a few years ago, and the plans are to move RT Jordan Gross to the left side at some point. But Steussie can put that off if he can convince the coaching staff he still can play at a high level. Steussie needs to show he's still in good physical shape and can eliminate penalty problems. ... LE Julius Poppers' sack total went from 12 his rookie year to seven in 2003. Peppers has rare physical talent but needs to mature and do a better job of recognizing blocking schemes.--Pal Yasinskas

CHICAG0 BEARS QB Rex Grossman is the projected starter, and there will be no controversy at a position the team has struggled to fill for the past decade, which likely means the end of Kordell Stewart's run with the Bears. The team never figured out how to use him correctly, and he doesn't fit the new scheme. ... With improved technique and fewer pass interference calls, LCB Charles Tillman could become a star under new coach Lovie Smith, who emphasizes turnovers. Tillman has size, speed and the short memory all cornerbacks need; eventually, he could be Pro Bowl player. ... S Bobby Grey emerged as an intimidating hitter when he played as an injury replacement last season. He'll push SS Mike Green for a starting job. SOMETHING TO PROVE: LG Rex Tucker was a Pro Bowl alternate the last time he made it through a season healthy, in 2001. He's healthy now and ready to resume a starting role. Doubts remain about how missing all of last season will affect Tucker, once known for a remarkable combination of strength and agility that had some suggesting he was the long-term answer at left tackle. ... CB R.W. McQuarters had a stellar 2001 season at right cornerback, got a long-term deal and moved to the left side, where he struggled until he was benched last season. He's back on the right side, challenging Jerry Azumah for the starting job. McQuarters lacks top speed but is a fluid athlete who takes chances and make plays. He's capable of big things if he's focused.--Mike Mulligan

DALLAS COWBOYS The team is talking about a long-term deal with RCB Marie Edwards, but he will test the free-agent market. His long arms and good footwork serve him well in bump-and-run play, overcoming his average speed and average ability to recover. He's a physical player who likes to beat up opposing receivers. Officials began paying more attention to him last year, and he was called for more penalties. ... The team would like to keep WR Joey Galloway--at the right price. He is scheduled to count $8 million against the salary cap in 2004; the team would like to reduce that figure to $3 million by restructuring his contract. Galloway still offers good speed and big-play ability. SOMETHING TO PROVE: When the team drafted RG Andre Gurode in the second round in 2002, the idea was he would be a key starter for a decade. Now, there's no guarantee that he will even start this season. Gurode, a tenacious run blocker at times, makes too many mental errors and needs to use better technique. ... WR Antonio Bryant has phenomenal talent, but it's too often obscured by his emotional outbursts and temper tantrums. He dropped too many passes last year and ran too many poor routes. This likely will be his last year to prove himself. ... Whether DT Willie Blade can stick as a starter depends greatly on how hard he works in the offseason. He has good initial quickness and burst off the ball, but his technique is average and his pad level is inconsistent.--Jean-Jacques Taylor

DETROIT LIONS The nine-year career of DT Luther Elliss appears to be over. Despite a potential salary-cap hit of more than $5 million, the Lions are expected to release Elliss, 30. It's possible he could restructure his deal, but the team believes Elliss no longer can make a significant contribution. ... Keep an eye on S Chris Kern, who is playing in NFL Europe. He impressed the coaching staff in training camp as a rookie last season before suffering a shoulder injury. Kern has excellent speed and would improve the team's depth on special teams and in the secondary. SOMETHING TO PROVE: TE Mikhael Ricks had his second-best year statistically last season with 37 catches but lost his starting job. Ricks was bothered by a balky knee but was demoted because of poor blocking and dropped passes. He has good hands and will cut down on drops, but he must improve his technique and lower his pad level as a blocker. ... C Dominic Raiola is a two-year starter but hasn't made significant progress. He must improve his pass blocking and become more fluid as a run blocker. The team plans to upgrade the guards who flank him, so there is no reason he shouldn't improve. ... RE Kalimba Edwards was bothered by a hernia problem last season, but even when he was close to 100 percent, he didn't show the pass-rushing prowess expected of him. The Lions believe Edwards needs more individualized training, and new defensive line coach Larry Brooks will spend more time with him.--Tam Kowalski

Charles Bronson

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