NFL '99; NFC PREVIEW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

East

Arizona Cardinals

Last season: 9-7, second. Lost divisional playoff game at Minnesota, 41-21.

Coach: Vince Tobin (20-28), fourth season with Cardinals.

Strength of schedule: Tie for fourth.

Starting quarterback: Jake Plummer (12-13).

Best move: Drafting WR David Boston and OT L.J. Shelton with first-round picks, further enhancing Plummer's passing game. Not signing Shelton early negated that move, however.

Toughest call: Letting OT Lomas Brown, LB Jamir Miller and FB Larry Centers go in free agency for salary-cap considerations. All three were leaders on the team and the void will not easily be filled.

Pressure's on: Plummer after his four-year, $29.7 million contract extension last season that included a $15 million signing bonus. That bonus is part of the reason the valued veterans above were let go.

Biggest question: Can DT Eric Swann return as a dominant force after two surgeries on his arthritic right knee?

Key statistic: In what has become an ominous trend for the Cardinals, three times in this decade they have had the last unsigned, first-round choice in the draft -- Garrison Hearst in 1993, Miller in 1994 and Andre Wadsworth in 1998.

Ticket to Atlanta: An upgraded scheduled, their penny-pinching ways and the loss of key players probably will knock the Cardinals out of the playoffs.

Dallas Cowboys

Last season: 10-6, first. Lost wild-card game to Arizona, 20-7.

Coach: Chan Gailey (10-6), second season with Cowboys.

Strength of schedule: 12th.

Starting quarterback: Troy Aikman (83-57).

Best move: Signing WR Rocket Ismail and C Mark Stepnoski in free agency. Ismail should give the Cowboys the speed receiver they need to stretch defenses, and Stepnoski, returning after four seasons with the Oilers, bolsters a shuffled offensive line.

Toughest call: Not drafting a defensive tackle when they knew Leon Lett was headed for another substance-abuse suspension. They wanted DT Anthony McFarland, but when he went to Tampa Bay with the 15th pick, the Cowboys didn't address a glaring need.

Pressure's on: WR Michael Irvin, who's in the final year of his contract. Irvin, 33, has lost a step and no longer is allowed to get away with pushing off. He had only one TD catch last season.

Biggest question: How long will CB-KR Deion Sanders be out with his toe injury?

Key statistic: Gailey had the Cowboys averaging 27 points a game the first 12 games last season. They averaged just 12.6 points the last five games, counting the playoff loss.

Ticket to Atlanta: Everything has to break right for a Super Bowl run. Not likely.

New York Giants

Last season: 8-8, third.

Coach: Jim Fassel (18-13-1), third season with Giants.

Strength of schedule: Tie for 25th.

Starting quarterback: Kent Graham (10-14).

Best move: Locking up DE Michael Strahan (four years, $32 million) and LB Jessie Armstead (seven years, $33 million) to long-term deals. That keeps the heart of the defense intact and keeps the Giants competitive.

Toughest call: Signing QB Kerry Collins to a four-year, $16.9 million contract with a $4.8 million signing bonus. The Saints, with little else at quuarterback, didn't bother to make an offer after catching his act in seven games last season.

Pressure's on: DE Cedric Jones, the fifth pick in the 1996 draft who has been a major bust. This figures to be his last chance in New York, where he's expected to replace Chad Bratzke (11.5 sacks) at right end. He will quickly become a target on defense.

Biggest question: What happens to Collins if Graham, who has his teammates' confidence, continues to play at a winning level?

Key statistic: The Giants' fall from grace in 1998 was attributable in part to a slide from plus-25 in turnover ratio to minus-two.

Ticket to Atlanta: The Giants are an intriguing team with lots of options, playing in a weak division. The playoffs are in reach, but the Super Bowl is a stretch.

Philadelphia Eagles

Last season: 3-13, fifth.

Coach: Andy Reid (0-0), first season with Eagles.

Strength of schedule: 28th.

Starting quarterback: Doug Pederson (0-0).

Best move: Bringing in former Pittsburgh executive Tom Modrak to clean up this mess as director of football operations was the best move of the Jeff Lurie era. Modrak has the road map to the playoffs.

Toughest call: Picking QB Donovan McNabb over RB Ricky Williams with the second pick of the draft. Blue-collar Philadelphia fans wanted Williams and a running game; Modrak and Reid wanted a franchise quarterback who lasts longer.

Pressure's on: Pederson, who has played in 21 NFL games in four seasons, started none and thrown a total of 32 passes. His first-team offense never reached the end zone in the preseason. And he's got McNabb looking over his shoulder.

Biggest question: Was Reid the best choice for this situation or the cheapest option? He's the only NFL head coach who's never been a head coach or coordinator in the league. He learned in a good system (Greeen Bay) with the best quarterback.

Key statistic: The Eagles' offense scored a grand total of 17 touchdowns, just 43 behind the league-leading 49ers.

Ticket to Atlanta: It'll be a cold day in the Georgia Dome.

Washington Redskins

Last season: 6-10, fourth.

Coach: Norv Turner (32-47-1), sixth season with Redskins.

Strength of schedule: 27th.

Starting quarterback: Brad Johnson (15-8).

Best move: The draft-day maneuvering by deposed GM Charley Casserly that got the Redskins CB Champ Bailey and, among other picks, an extra first-round choice in 2000. Second-best move was trading for Johnson, even though the price was high.

Toughest call: Cashiering Casserly to bring in personnel man Vinny Cerrato, who was shoved out the door in San Francisco.

Pressure's on: Turner, who has yet to deliver a playoff berth in five seasons. He laid the blame for bad drafts at Casserly's door and won a front-office power struggle -- for now. He will be expected to win early and often, if not make the playoffs.

Biggest question: How much time will new owner Daniel Snyder, who paid $800 million for the franchise, give Turner before the ax falls?

Key statistic: The club has three first-round picks in 2000. That amounts to some expensive draft picks next year or a juicy trade in the interim. The Redskins are positioned for a quick comeback if they play their draft picks right. Cerrato will be on the spot immediately in his first draft.

Ticket to Atlanta: Snyder can fly first- class, but his team won't.

Division at a glance

Best rookie: CB Champ Bailey, Redskins.

First-round risk: OT L.J. Shelton, Cardinals.

Best free agent: TE Pete Mitchell, Giants.

Up-and-comer: WR Amani Toomer, Giants.

Biggest gamble: QB Doug Pederson, Eagles.

Most overrated: DT Dana Stubblefield, Redskins.

Most underrated: DT Mark Smith, Cardinals.

Hot assistant: Dave McGinnis, Cardinals defensive coordinator.

Central

Chicago Bears

Last season: 4-12, fifth.

Coach: Dick Jauron (0-0), first season with Bears.

Strength of schedule: 23rd.

Starting quarterback: Shane Mat-thews (1-0).

Best move: The ouster of Michael McCaskey as team president and the installation of Ted Phillips. McCaskey was so blatantly bad that he was fired by his mother, Virginia McCaskey.

Toughest call: Losing Dave McGinnis as the team's top coaching choice to replace Dave Wannstedt. When Michael McCaskey made a premature announcement -- without having a done deal -- McGinnis, the defensive coordinator at Arizona, pulled out. He recognized incompetence when he saw it.

Pressure's on: RB Curtis Enis didn't endear himself to his teammates with a four-week holdout a year ago and then didn't deliver like the fifth pick of the draft. He averaged a mediocre 3.7 yards a carry before going down with a torn knee ligament. His attitude and work ethic need fine tuning.

Biggest question: Can offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's high-tech passing offense (he coached at Louisiana Tech last season) work in the Windy City in December? How about October?

Key statistic: This is where Wann-stedt took the program in his six seasons -- the Bears didn't have a Pro Bowl player the last five years.

Ticket to Atlanta: A flyby is the only way.

Detroit Lions

Last season: 5-11, fourth.

Coach: Bobby Ross (61-51), third season with Lions, eighth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 10th.

Starting quarterback: Charlie Batch (5-7).

Best move: Getting OLB Chris Claiborne with the ninth pick in the draft was a stroke of luck for the Lions. Claiborne, an inside backer at USC, has the speed and athleticism to play outside, and the potential to make an impact in the pass rush.

Toughest call: Losing RB Barry Sanders two days before camp opened is the worst luck the Lions could imagine. But they should have taken the hint when Sanders failed to return any of Ross' messages in the off-season.

Pressure's on: Ross. After all the speculation that Sanders didn't like Ross' system, it'd be a bad time to have the bottom drop out. Even Sanders' father, William, points at Ross as the principle reason Barry walked away.

Biggest question: How quickly can Batch learn to carry the offense with defenses no longer worried about Sanders? It's a pass-first offense now.

Key statistic: Bryant Westbrook was the team's only cornerback with an interception last season (he had three). That should change with Terry Fair entrenching himself on the right side.

Ticket to Atlanta: Ross just wants to keep the ship afloat this season.

Green Bay Packers

Last season: 11-5, second. Lost wild-card game at San Francisco, 30-27.

Coach: Ray Rhodes (29-34-1), first season with Packers, fifth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tie for seventh.

Starting quarterback: Brett Favre (74-35).

Best move: Retaining Sherman Lewis as offensive coordinator and hiring Emmitt Thomas as defensive coordinator. Lewis finally gets to call the plays now that Mike Holmgren is gone.

Toughest call: Bringing Rhodes in after his 3-13 debacle in Philadelphia was a bit awkward, but GM Ron Wolf knew and respected Rhodes from the two years he spent in Green Bay as defensive coordinator in 1992-93.

Pressure's on: NT Gilbert Brown had an abysmal season in 1998. He's in the final year of a contract that averages $2.75 million, and is playing for his NFL future.

Biggest question: Can the Packers find a cornerback who can cover the Vikings' Randy Moss in their key divisional matchup? Moss had three TD catches against them last year, each one more than 40 yards.

Key statistic: The Packers went 0-4 in their prime-time TV games, getting outscored 115-86 in losses to Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Detroit.

Ticket to Atlanta: A little more pressure on Randall Cunningham or a little better coverage on Moss and the Packers could unseat the Vikings in the division.

Minnesota Vikings

Last season: 15-1, first. Lost to Falcons, 30-27, in NFC championship game.

Coach: Dennis Green (71-41), eighth season with Vikings.

Strength of schedule: Tie for seventh.

Starting quarterback: Randall Cunningham (77-46-1).

Best move: Drafting Daunte Culpepper as QB of the future may not have addressed more pressing needs on defense, but it was a good decision for the franchise. Culpepper has the skills to be an outstanding QB and needs time to develop. He'll get that in Minnesota.

Toughest call: Wasting a first-round pick on DE Dimitrius Underwood. The Vikings thought they had found another Randy Moss. No team can afford to throw away a first-round pick.

Pressure's on: Offensive coordinator Ray Sherman, who bombed with Kordell Stewart in Pittsburgh last year.

Biggest question: Can Cunningham and backup Jeff George peacefully coexist? Cunningham has not always handled these situations gracefully, and could easily fall into the mistake-prone mode that got him run of out Philadelphia.

Key statistic: The big-play pass is the staple of the Vikings' offense. Last year, they hit 21 passes that went 40 yards or longer.

Ticket to Atlanta: Barring a blowup at quarterback, or a collapse on defense, the Vikings are the team to beat in the NFC.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Last season: 8-8, third.

Coach: Tony Dungy (24-24), fourth season with Bucs.

Strength of schedule: Tie for second.

Starting quarterback: Trent Dilfer (31-35).

Best move: Giving themselves options at quarterback if Dilfer fails to improve his game. The trade for for former Raven Eric Zeier affords the Bucs a stopgap choice. The second-round pick spent on Shaun King is a more intriguing peek into the future. King wasn't considered in the top echelon of QBs coming out, but he has a strong arm, great mobility and led Tulane to an undefeated season. He could be quarterbacking the team by midseason.

Toughest call: Not dumping Dilfer and going in another direction. The scrutiny of Dilfer will only increase if the Bucs get off to a slow start.

Pressure's on: Who else? Dilfer. It's time for him to look like a first-round draft choice instead of a journeyman.

Biggest question: Will the defensive frustration be divisive if the offense struggles again?

Key statistic: The Bucs lost four games to teams with sub-.500 records last season, including the lowly Lions twice. That's the difference between 12-4 and not making the playoffs.

Ticket to Atlanta: Dungy has a Super Bowl defense, but his offense is third-rate. Without a quarterback, he won't get close.

Division at a glance

Best rookie: LB Chris Claiborne, Lions.

First-round bust: DE Dimitrius Underwood, Vikings.

Best free agent: DT James Jones, Lions.

Up-and-comer: WR Germane Crowell, Lions.

Biggest gamble: QB Jeff George, Vikings.

Most overrated: NT Gilbert Brown, Packers.

Most underrated: CB Donnie Abraham, Bucs.

Hot assistant: Sherman Lewis, Packers offensive coordinator.

West

Atlanta Falcons

Last season: 14-2, first. Lost Super Bowl XXXIII to Denver, 34-19.

Coach: Dan Reeves (162-117-1), third season with Falcons, 19th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tie for 19th.

Starting quarterback: Chris Chandler (48-50).

Best move: Signing free-agent SS Marty Carter of the Bears to a five-year deal. Carter, 29, replaces an aging William White, 33, in a secondary that ranked only 21st in pass defense.

Toughest call: Turning WR Tony Martin loose with his legal problems. Martin was Atlanta's only viable deep threat last year and hasn't been replaced. That's a big concern for Chandler.

Pressure's on: OLB Keith Brooking, a first-round pick a year ago, steps into Cornelius Bennett's position on the weak side and must deliver.

Biggest question: How long can the Falcons remain Super Bowl contenders? Reeves won seven games his first season, then 14 last year with one of the league's oldest teams. Some of those older players already have been replaced. A host of others -- DE Chuck Smith andWR Terance Mathis, among them -- are in the last year of their contracts.

Key statistic: The Falcons led the league with a plus-20 turnover ratio. They were plus-four in 1997.

Ticket to Atlanta: They need another giant year from RB Jamal Anderson and an injury-free year from Chandler to make another run.

Carolina Panthers

Last season: 4-12, fourth.

Coach: George Seifert (98-30), first season with Panthers, ninth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tie for 19th.

Starting quarterback: Steve Beuerlein (30-35).

Best move: Going back to a 4-3 defense that moves Sean Gilbert inside to DT. Gilbert was a bust at DE in Dom Capers' 3-4 last season.

Toughest call: Allowing WR Rocket Ismail (69 catches, 1,024 yards, eight touchdowns) to escape to Dallas in free agency. It took Ismail six NFL seasons -- three with the Panthers -- to mature into a legitimate receiver; now he's gone.

Pressure's on: Gilbert needs to justify a seven-year, $46.5 million contract that included a $10 million signing bonus.

Biggest question: Seifert won with San Francisco's system; can he win with either the aging Beuerlein or unproven Jeff Lewis?

Key statistic: A franchise that started out so well went south so fast. To see why, look at the team's four picks in the first two rounds of the 1995 draft: QB Kerry Collins was cut; CB Tyrone Poole was traded; OT Blake Brockermeyer and DE Shawn King left as free agents. All the Panthers have to show for those picks is this year's second-rounder, OT Chris Terry.

Ticket to Atlanta: The Panthers look more like an expansion team now than they did in 1995. It's a rough road back to the playoffs.

New Orleans Saints

Last season: 6-10, third.

Coach: Mike Ditka (118-82), third season with Saints, 14th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 13th.

Starting quarterback: Billy Joe Hobert (3-7).

Best move: The controversial draft-day deal that landed RB Ricky Williams for eight draft picks, including two No. 1's. This is how Ditka wants to win -- by running the ball down opponents' throats and playing dominant defense. Williams should fill the first half of the order.

Toughest call: Not pursuing a seasoned QB in the free-agent market. Among those available were Rich Gannon, Trent Green, Gus Frerotte and Neil O'Donnell. Without a passing threat, Williams will face eight- and nine-man fronts often.

Pressure's on: Ditka said that Williams was the last piece of the playoff puzzle for the Saints. That's a strong statement for a team whose defense gave up 354 yards a game.

Biggest question: Will it be quarterback-by-committee like the last two years? Ditka used four different starting QBs in each of his first two seasons.

Key statistic: The Saints' defense fell from fourth in 1997 to 26th in 1998, and ranked last in pass defense despite 48 sacks.

Ticket to Atlanta: Injuries may deny the Saints the chance to make a meaningful move in the standings.

St. Louis Rams

Last season: 4-12, fourth.

Coach: Dick Vermeil (63-70), third season with Rams, 10th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 29th.

Starting quarterback: Kurt Warner (0-0).

Best move: Revamping the offense with RB Marshall Faulk, WR Torry Holt, G Adam Timmerman and QB Trent Green. Faulk and Holt (potentially) are play-makers.

Toughest call: Dumping QB Tony Banks for Green, and watching Green go down in the preseason with a serious knee injury. Green was brilliant in the preseason.

Pressure's on: WR Isaac Bruce was a virtually no-show in the Rams' offense last year, missing all but five games with hamstring injuries. In his preceding three seasons, he caught a total of 25 touchdown passes. Last year he caught one. The Rams nursed him in camp to avoid a recurrence.

Biggest question: With drastic personnel changes, can Vermeil -- 9-23 in St. Louis -- muster enough wins to save his job? Has Vermeil closed the generational gap with a young team?

Key statistic: Of the team's top five draft choices in 1996, only one remains -- second-round TE Ernie Conwell. Gone are RB Lawrence Phillips, WR Eddie Kennison, Banks and FB Jerald Moore. That's a brutal draft record that few franchsies could overcome.

Ticket to Atlanta: The Rams will be lambs again.

San Francisco 49ers

Last season: 12-4, second. Lost divisional playoff game at Atlanta, 20-18.

Coach: Steve Mariucci (25-7), third season with 49ers.

Strength of schedule: Tie for 19th.

Starting quarterback: Steve Young (92-48).

Best move: Amid much salary maneuvering, the 49ers managed to retain wide receivers Terrell Owens (seven years, $23 million) and J.J. Stokes (five years, $16.9 million). That's critical with the ongoing crisis at running back. The 49ers will be even more of a passing team in 1999.

Toughest call: Desperate for a running back with Garrison Hearst out most of the season, GM Bill Walsh climbed out on the Lawrence Phillips limb and gave him a two-year contract with a $425,000 signing bonus.

Pressure's on: The secondary, which was 29th in pass defense a year ago, has picked up Craig Newsome this week to alleviate a size crisis. The other cornerbacks are 5-9 R.W. McQuarters, 5-8 Darnell Walker and 5-7 Mark McMillian.

Biggest question: Can Walsh restock an aging, overpriced roster quickly enough to keep the dynasty going?

Key statistic: The offensive line surrendered 53 sacks. That's a frightening number with a QB who's especially vulnerable to concussions.

Ticket to Atlanta: There's still some magic left in the 49ers mystique. Injuries could change that.

Division at a glance

Best rookie: RB Ricky Williams, Saints.

First-round risk: DT Reggie McGrew, 49ers.

Best free agent: SS Marty Carter, Falcons.

Up-and-comer: SS Sammy Knight, Saints.

Biggest gamble: QB Jeff Lewis, Panthers.

Most overrated: DT Sean Gilbert, Panthers.

Most underrated: DE Chuck Smith, Falcons.

Hot assistant: Rich Brooks, Falcons defensive coordinator.

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