Carolina Panthers
Predicted Finish: 3-13 (5th in NFC West)

Outlook: Let me just say this about youth movements: they come in layers. You have a small core of seasoned veterans, some guys who have 2-4 years experience, and then a lot of rookies and free agents. You need some veteran presence; a good youth movement should not be a youth movement in totality.

I think someone needs to tell that to George Seifert. The 'youth movement’ was his justification for jettisoning Steve Beurlein in the off-season – despite the fact that doing so made the 2001 Carolina Panthers the only NFL team in modern history with no quarterback on their roster who had ever started a professional game. Yes, Beurlein was injury prone and aging. His salary was a touch high. But he was also just a year removed from a 4,000 yard passing performance and a Pro Bowl berth. All this will do is stunt the growth of many of the young offensive players, destroy the confidence of the young passers they do have, and doom the Cats to a miserable season. Jeff Lewis, the starter early in camp who said he was 'shocked’ by Beurlein’s departure, has already crumbled underneath the pressure and been cut. Now Chris Weinke – a fourth-round rookie – will start. If you can only muster 3 points against Oklahoma, how do you expect to score on New Orleans?

Perhaps this is Seifert’s way of trying to build a team up himself. He was quoted recently as saying that “with Montana and Young, you knew what you had. Right now, we don’t know what we’ve got. What we do know is that we’ve got to find out what we’ve got, and that’s sort of compelling.” Seifert was a good coach, but he is generally credited with merely inheriting his Super Bowl teams – not building them. So perhaps this is his way of cleansing the Panthers of anything inherited (Beuerlein was already the starter when Seifert came on board) and make it his team, for better or worse.

Make that: 'For better or much worse.’

On offense, the only healthy, above-average player is wideout Muhsin Muhammad, but he will be neutralized by the lack of solid play from the quarterbacks. The next two threats on the receiving front, TE Wesley Walls and WR Patrick Jeffers, both have knee problems. Jeffers will not be a factor; Walls is 35 and is an unknown now because of his off-season knee surgery. If Walls is healthy, he will be a big boost to the young passers. The offensive line gave up 69 sacks last year, but new acquisition Todd Steussie, Kevin Donalley, and Jeff Mitchell should upgrade this unit. RB Tim Biakabutuka has never been healthy (his season high is 718 yards) but there is nobody behind him.

Defensively, things aren’t much better. The defensive tackle situation is not bad. The poster child for NFL underachievers, DT Sean Gilbert, had a decent year in 2000 and rookie Chris Jenkins looks like a keeper. Former 49ers Brenston Buckner, who played very good football for the 49ers last year and picked up 7½ sacks, is the backup. But things are not as rosey at DE. To give you an idea of how bad the Panthers ends are: two guys named Jay Williams and Michael Rucker are the starters. The backups are Christian Peter and Chris Slade, a 9 year veteran who has always played linebacker and weighs 250. Ouch.

The linebackers and secondary are filled with rookies and veterans with nothing left. Safety Mike Minter are rookie backer Dan Morgan are the lone bright spots at either defensive area. At corner, Rashard Anderson can’t cover anyone, and Doug Evans has looked terrible since coming over from the Pack.

Key Player: It has to be RB Tim Biakabutuka. While he’s not a top notch back, if Biakabutuka is healthy, then teams will at least have to think about defending the run. If he’s not healthy, they can drop more players into coverage and rush the passer more aggressively. If either happens, any chance of Weinke even being servicable are over.

How to Beat Them: Obviously, you have to harrass the rookie QB with multiple looks and blitz schemes. Oklahoma had a lot of succes vs. Weinke by collapsing the pocket and making him make plays on the run – something he is ill-suited to do. Again, if Biakabutuka is out, it’s hard to see the Panthers beating anybody.

Atlanta Falcons
Predicted Finish: 5-11 (4th in NFC West)

Overview: For a draft that seemed very forward looking with the drafting of Michael Vick, the Falcons did very little to help themselves this offseason. It’s hard to argue that offensive line and defensive line weren’t the biggest areas of need for the Birds. So why is one seventh-round guard the only significant 2001 addition to either unit? The only thing scarier is that that seventh rounder – Kynan Forney of Hawaii – earned a starting position over two-year starter Calvin Collins, who was cut.


Yes, second round pick Alge Crumpler looks like a great player – but with all the needs the Falcons have, can you afford to draft a tight end when you have a servicable Reggie Kelly already there? I don’t get it, but hell, what do I know?

The faces are the same on offense, but this team is not going to go 14-2 this year. Still, I think the Falcons will win some games with Chris Chandler at quarterback, even though he is fading. In fact, the offense could be pretty good if everyone is healthy and a group of players return to 1998 form. But the consensus I’m hearing is that RB Jamal Anderson is a shadow of his 1998 self. It’s hard not to like the Tony Martin signing. He was the deep threat Chandler didn’t have in 1999 and 2000, and at the veteran minimun the Falcons can’t lose. He didn’t pan out in Miami, but who was throwing him the football? Chris Chandler is a much better match for a deep guy like Martin than Jay Fiedler. Terrance Mathis is still a very solid and dependable wideout. The other good news, of course, is that Michael Vick looked a lot better than many were saying he’d look in the preseason. I think the Falcons will find ways to work him in.

Defensively, it’s a mixed bag even when they’re totally healthy. Linebacker Keith Brooking is the only member of the front seven who would start for the 49ers. The defense if full of meatheads who can run, but lack football smarts – guys like Patrick Kerney, Brady Smith, and Marc Simoneau. Still, DT Travis Hall can be a horse in the middle and is a solid veteran.

The corners are very strong, though Ray Buchanon was in a contract year in 2000. But Marty Carter and Ronnie Bradford are very average at safety.

Key Player: RB Jamal Anderson. If he’s back, the Falcons offense could be very good. When he’s running good, he opens up the passing game and eases the pressure on Chandler. The passing game has enough weapons to move the ball even without Anderson; with him, they could be very dangerous. The biggest reason for the dropoff from the 1998 Falcons and the 1999/2000 Falcons was the health of #32.

How to Beat Them: If Martin can spread the coverage out, it will be harder to keep Mathis, Jefferson, Kelly, and Crumpler under wraps underneath. Their passing game could be a real problem. So I say get to Chandler and hit him, which shouldn’t be too hard with that line. He’s never stood up to beatings very well, and that’s the best way I can think to slow the passing game down if everyone’s healthy. I would focus on the pass and make Jamal Anderson show me he can beat me.

Offensively, I still think we run the football on a front seven that is susceptable to it. Still, I like Terrell Owens matched up with anybody, so we can still work the ball down the field. I think that their backers are fast enough to cover our backs, too. Again, I would get physical with the ground game and pound them.

If everyone is healthy, the Falcons actually could surprise some people. But I just can’t see a team with such weak offensive and defensive lines making a lot of noise.