New Orleans Saints
Predicted Finish: 11-5 (1st in NFC West)

Outlook: The Saints could very well be the best team in the NFC this year. A big reason why is coach Jim Haslett, who has won the team over with his no-nonsense, go-for-broke style. The result is a dizzying array of the traditional and the not-so-traditional – the Saints are a team that believes in hard-nosed football but they’re never predictable. The Saints love to run it down your throat and play physical defense, but then Brooks makes some crazy play outside the pocket. They like to run on first down, but they also attempted 17 fourth-down conversions.

It starts up front – the Saints have the best offensive and defensive lines in the league (yes, they’re better than Tampa Bay). LT Will Roaf, RT Kyle Turley, and LG Wally Williams are Pro Bowl caliber lineman. On the D-Line, Joe Johnson is the prototype for defensive end, and Darren Howard and Willie Whitehead are also proven playmakers outside. Inside, La’Roi Glover is the quickest tackle in the game, and Norman Hand is a brick wall vs. the run. They are thin at DT after that, but I like DTs Kenny Smith and Enis Davis, drafted this year for depth. Both are exceptionally talented players who underachieved in college. I think Haslett is the kind of coach that can get these guys on the same page. Smith should contribute immediately.

Keith Mitchell is a tough, quick, playmaker outside. You can see the blend of traditional and new looks in the defensive front seven – big, powerful lineman and super-fast, athletic linebackers. The secondary is very pedestrian, with slow but football-smart S Sammy Knight the best of the bunch.

On offense, the Saints have two very good quarterbacks in Aaron Brooks and Jeff Blake. Blake is certainly better at reading defenses and checking off receivers, but Brooks is too exciting not to start. If he always tries to freelance after his first read, so what? The guy is even more dangerous when he does that. And he seems to have that inexplicable knack for rising to the occasion – just look at the tapes of the wins over the 49ers and the Rams. He’ll make more big plays than bad plays. RB Ricky Williams is the talk of camp; he looks entrenched as the starter, so Deuce McAllister will be a backup. Nice backup, eh? His pass catching ability will be a nice asset on third down. WR Joe Horn’s game caught up with his mouth last year – he is quick as a lightening bolt and can run well with the rock. Albert Connell can be a bit of a punk, but is a very good – sometimes great – wideout when he’s focused. I didn’t expect any antics from him while under Haslett’s glare, but now his preseason injuries are casting him in doubt. Willie Jackson is a fine #3 wideout and 6-4 rookie Onome Ojo has turned some heads with his play in preseason. Still, Connell would really disappoint if he didn’t win the job.

Key Players: Charlie Clemens, MLB / Cam Cleeland, TE – Two players who missed all of 2000 with injuries. With Mark Fields gone, Clemens will be the new middle linebacker. He was a situational pass rusher for the Rams and has never really been a starter. If he plays well, Darren Smith can stay on the weakside and rookie Sedrick Hodge can provide heat off the bench. If he struggles, the Saints would have to move Smith back inside and start Hodge, which is a much weaker linebacker situation. You never want to have an unknown at MLB, but Haslett hasn’t been wrong very often. Cleeland is a fine pass catching TE who could really be a big boost for Aaron Brooks. But Cleeland needs to get his butt on the field and keep it there – which he has a history of failing to do.

How to Beat Them: The 49ers will score points on these guys because Garcia knows how to get rid of the ball quickly and the Saints’ secondary does not match up with our receivers. Defensively, the biggest problem the 49ers had was controlling Brooks once he started to run. A couple of scoring drives were salvaged by his scrambles – he only completed 12 of 29 passes. The key is to keep Brooks in the pocket and make him throw – easier said than done.

I think Brooks' lack of passing polish and their secondary are the only things keeping the Saints from being a 14-2 kind of team. And if Brooks’ continues to progress at the rate he has the last few seasons, the Saints could be really tough by season’s end. A season split is possible and would be a big boost for the 49ers. This is the team to beat this year.

St. Louis Rams
Predicted Finish: 10-6 (2nd in NFC West)

Outlook: Do I even need to discuss their offense? The biggest testament to how good the Rams offense is this: Len Pasquarelli noted on ESPN that the Rams’ defense gave up 471 points and yet they still won 10 games. To put that in perspective, no team had ever given up more than 450 point and won more then four games. Incredible. I won’t even talk about them: they’re great, they score in busloads, they’re deep, I hate them.

I like talking about the Rams' defense much more.

For all the talk of the defensive overall – and they are a much quicker unit, to be sure – I don't expect them to strike fear into anybody quite yet. No defense can hit the ground running with eight new starters. The only rookie who looks like he’ll have an impact in 2001 is DT Damion Lewis, who looks very good – he can dance around lineman or run over them. DT Ryan Picket, a bad pick if you ask me, is not ready. S Adam Archuleta has a great heart, but he’s a converted linebacker who struggled with coverage in the pre-season. I really like LB Tommy Polley, but that’s a tough position for a rookie to pick up quickly – just ask Jaime Winborn. Polley hasn’t fought his way off the second team yet.

The defensive line will work if all the starters play very well – but there is no depth and any injuries or bad play could be disastrous. After DE Grant Winstrom, DT Damion Lewis, and serviceable backup DE Chidi Ahanotu, there are lots of questions. Will DE Leonard Little be a solid pass rusher, given that he’s never started or played DE? And with Cedric Jones done for the year, can the Rams make it with only three good ends? It’s worse at DT: after Lewis, the next three guys on the depth chart are journeyman Jeff Zgonina, a very raw rookie in Ryan Pickett, and Brian Young, a fifth round draft pick in 2000. Zgonina will probably be the starter.

At first glance, things look really good at linebacker: Mark Fields, London Fletcher, and exciting rookie Tommy Polley. Right? Well, I see problems. The Saints felt Fields was their fourth best linebacker and let him go – he is a physical specimen but not a thinker at a position where you should be one. London Fletcher, while his numbers don’t indicate it, has a rap for being an immature player who does not stick to his assignments quite enough. And Polley has been relegated to second string behind veteran Don Davis. Again, the only depth is two rookies: Polley and Brian Allen.

Kim Herring is still in his prime at safety, Dexter McCleon is a solid #2 corner, and Archuleta can hit. But it all comes down to CB Aenus Williams. He is not quite the player he was, but if he can be the B+ to A- kind of player he has been the last few years, the Rams will be stronger in the secondary than anywhere else. They actually have depth here: Dre Bly is a great nickel corner, and Jacoby Shepherd is still raw but is a better #4 corner than most teams have.

Key Player: On a team with this kind of turnover, there are lots of candidates. But with DE Cedric Jones out for the year, it has to be DE Leonard Little. The Rams have always treated Little like an alien: he excites them, but they’re never sure what to make of him or where to play him. This year he has bulked up a little and will be a DE, but he has been purely a situational, pass rushing linebacker up until now and is very undersized for the position. If he can step up with 8-10 sacks and play adequately against the run, the Rams can survive with Chidi Ahanotu as their only reliable backup. However, if Little falters, the Rams will have a problem at DE. Their defense is built for speed, but that plan could blow up on them if they can’t get to the quarterback.

How to Beat Them: Defensively: Pray. And hope Angel Lombardi is listening.

Offensively: The main key is to establish the run. The line is undersized and has no depth – and holding onto the ball will keep their offense off the field. Then I would target their teams’ youth and the veteran’s lack of discipline by using some change of direction plays. Third, I would attack their safeties through the air. Archuleta is a converted linebacker and is just learning to cover. FS Herring was the SS for Baltimore and is being asked to cover in this defense a lot more than he had in the past. Any way you cut it, the offense needs to score 30 to beat them – which the 49ers can do.

The 49ers have a great chance to beat them at Candlestick early in the year – before the Ram's defense has had much time to figure itself out. I think we can expect a season split.

Next Week: Looking Down - The Cats and the Birds