NATIONAL CONFERENCE

The Baltimore Sun

NFC East

DALLAS COWBOYS

2006 record -- 9-7, second place, lost at Seattle in wild-card round.

Report date, site -- Tuesday (rookies and veterans); Alamodome, San Antonio.

The buzz -- The Cowboys are being talked about as a trendy pick in the NFC, but that's putting a lot of faith in quarterback Tony Romo -- and even more on coach Wade Phillips. In four previous stops (two as a head coach, two as an interim), Phillips went 48-42. Not bad, but he didn't have wide receiver Terrell Owens around to undermine his authority. Truth be told, the Cowboys don't have many glaring weaknesses heading to camp (deep pass coverage and placements on kicks come to mind), but the smallest of distractions could throw this bunch off.

NEW YORK GIANTS

2006 record -- 8-8, third place, lost at Philadelphia in wild-card round.

Report date, site -- Friday (rookies and veterans); State University at Albany (N.Y.).

The buzz -- Whatever margin for error the Giants had last season left when Tiki Barber, one of the NFL's most productive running backs the past five seasons, retired to pursue a TV career. Barber made some huge plays for a middling offense, which means quarterback Eli Manning (57.7 completion percentage, 3,244 yards, 24 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions, 77.0 rating) has even more Big Apple pressure on his shoulders. There are some high hopes for Barber's heir, 6-foot-4, 264-pound Brandon Jacobs (423 yards, nine touchdowns). Defensively, the Giants were 25th overall last year, including 28th against the pass. Hence the drafting of cornerback Aaron Ross, one of the top defensive backs in the draft.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

2006 record -- 10-6, first place, lost at New Orleans in divisional round.

Report dates, site -- Friday (rookies); July 30 (veterans); Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa.

The buzz -- Few would question the worth of quarterback Donovan McNabb, who was having an MVP-caliber season (18 touchdown passes, six interceptions, 95.5 rating) when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in November. Last season, McNabb and Jeff Garcia combined to run the league's second-best offense -- with running back Brian Westbrook (1,916 total yards from scrimmage) a big factor. Philly's defense began to show its age and wear, especially against the run (26th). Linebacker Takeo Spikes should be an inspirational leader, but it's time for defensive tackles Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson, former first-round picks, to assert themselves.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

2006 record -- 5-11, last place.

Report date, site -- Friday (rookies and veterans); Redskins Park, Ashburn, Va.

The buzz -- This is the summer (and season) of quarterback Jason Campbell, a third-year pro. He started the final seven games last season to lukewarm reviews (10 touchdown passes, six interceptions, 76.5 rating). If Campbell can put the long ball back in the offense, the Redskins will be dangerous with the return of a healthy running back Clinton Portis alongside Ladell Betts (1,154 yards, four touchdowns), who could start for many teams. The onus will be on a defense that ranked in the top 10 in 2004 and 2005, then collapsed to 31st in 2006.

NFC South

ATLANTA FALCONS

2006 record -- 7-9, third place.

Report date, site -- Wednesday (rookies and veterans); Falcons Training Facility, Flowery Branch, Ga.

The buzz -- Unfortunately for the Falcons, the buzz from camp will focus on the indictment of quarterback Michael Vick and three other men on charges related to their alleged operation of a dogfighting ring in Virginia. No matter what happens, this story will linger. In the meantime, new coach Bobby Petrino will look to find a way to make Atlanta's offense (first in rushing, last in passing) more balanced. Petrino's aerial assault at Louisville was legendary, but Vick is hardly a drop-back passer. Defensive end Jamaal Anderson, the No. 7 overall pick in the draft, brings youth and speed to a defense that gave up nearly 230 yards passing per game last season.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

2006 record -- 8-8, second place.

Report date, site -- Friday (rookies and veterans); Wofford College, Spartanburg, S.C.

The buzz -- The Panthers remain almost intact from last season, save the somewhat surprising offseason release of wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. The biggest move was firing offensive coordinator Dan Henning and replacing him with former Browns offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. What little the club did to improve the offense on the field may not show up immediately. That's if coach John Fox deems quarterback David Carr -- a franchise quarterback who was saddled with a sad franchise -- an alternative to Jake Delhomme, who was the league's worst third-down passer (55.5 rating) last year. The defense, led by defensive end Julius Peppers, should have another fine season.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

2006 record -- 10-6, first place, lost at Chicago in NFC title game.

Report date, site -- Wednesday (rookies and veterans); Millsaps College, Jackson, Miss.

The buzz -- The Saints are the latest symbol of NFL parity. They went 3-13 in 2005, but advanced to the NFC title game for the first time in franchise history last season. Not a bad debut for coach Sean Payton, but even he would throw the bulk of the credit in the direction of quarterback Drew Brees, who oversaw an offense and a passing game that ranked No. 1 in the NFL. All but one starter (wide receiver Joe Horn) is back from that unit, so the Saints should be explosive again. Emphasis during camp will be on a run defense that was 23rd last year. Linebacker Brian Simmons, a longtime fixture with the Bengals, should help.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

2006 record -- 4-12, last place.

Report date, site -- Thursday (rookies and veterans); Disney's Wide World of Sports, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

The buzz -- Basically, all eyes will be on quarterback Jeff Garcia, who looms as the best quarterback (and best fit) coach Jon Gruden has had since arriving in Tampa Bay in 2002. Garcia's mobility, savvy and touch when throwing on the move are elements the Bucs haven't had. That should be good for running back Carnell Williams and a rushing attack that was the league's fifth worst in 2006. Defensively, the Bucs have six projected starters in their 30s. They need more pressure up front and more takeaways from the secondary after an uncharacteristically unproductive 2006 season on both fronts (25 sacks, 20 forced turnovers).

NFC West

ARIZONA CARDINALS

2006 record -- 5-11, last place.

Report date, site -- Friday (rookies and veterans); Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Ariz.

The buzz -- New coach Ken Whisenhunt, who took over for the fired Dennis Green, was offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, where he relied on a solid ground game. With the Cardinals, he inherits a rushing attack that has been terrible (30th in 2006), even with the expensive acquisition of Edgerrin James last season. Whisenhunt brought offensive line coach Russ Grimm with him to the desert and vowed to beef things up; hence the selection of offensive tackle Levi Brown with the No. 5 overall pick.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

2006 record -- 8-8, second place.

Report date, site -- Thursday (rookies and veterans); Rams Park, St. Louis.

The buzz -- Running back Stephen Jackson, with a league-high 2,334 yards from scrimmage, slid in perfectly as the heir to Marshall Faulk, who retired. That wasn't a surprise. Neither was what the always-high-powered Rams accomplished behind quarterback Marc Bulger, who oversaw the league's sixth-ranked offense. Coach Scott Linehan seeks more balance in his second season after his defense finished 23rd overall, including 31st against the run (145.4 yards per game). The Rams sought help for their front four in the offseason, trading for defensive end James Hall to provide a rush opposite Leonard Little and drafting Adam Carriker, an end in college, with the intent of switching him to tackle. They hope his strength and quickness will help the run defense.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

2006 record -- 7-9, third place.

Report date, site -- Saturday (rookies and veterans); 49ers Complex, Santa Clara, Calif.

The buzz -- What just two years ago was one of the least-talented rosters in league history has been revamped into a squad good enough to challenge in the weak NFC West. Though quarterback Alex Smith is the face of franchise, running back Frank Gore led the conference in rushing (1,695 yards, eight touchdowns) and ranked fourth in total yards (2,180). The 49ers gave cornerback Nate Clements an $80 million contract to upgrade the 26th-ranked pass defense, and rookie linebacker Patrick Willis will be a centerpiece in a new 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, who needs to overhaul a unit that surrendered a league-worst 412 points last season.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

2006 record -- 9-7, first place, lost at Chicago in divisional round.

Report dates, site -- Thursday (rookies); Saturday (veterans). Seahawks Kirkland Headquarters, Kirkland, Wash.

The buzz -- The Seahawks took a big step backward last season from their first trip to the Super Bowl because of injuries that sidelined quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (four games) and running back Shaun Alexander (six). Both are elite players at their positions and easily could right the team's struggles (19th in both total offense and defense) by returning to their 2005 form. Seattle took steps to plug a leaky defense by signing defensive end Patrick Kerney, who has averaged just fewer than nine sacks the past six seasons, and free safety Deon Grant, who should be a solid last line of defense.

NFC North

CHICAGO BEARS

2006 record -- 13-3, first place, lost to Indianapolis in Super Bowl.

Report date, site -- Thursday (rookies and veterans); Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, Ill.

The buzz -- The reigning NFC champions get defensive tackle Tommie Harris and safety Mike Brown back from season-ending injuries, but uncertainty looms with linebacker Lance Briggs' trade demand. Besides the Briggs watch, all eyes will be on quarterback Rex Grossman and whether he can develop some consistency. The trade of running back Thomas Jones (a move that wasn't popular with some players) makes Cedric Benson the feature back in an offense that ranked 15th last season.

DETROIT LIONS

2006 record -- 3-13, last place.

Report date, site -- Wednesday (rookies and veterans); Lions training facility, Allen Park, Mich.

The buzz -- Since Matt Millen, the in-over-his-head general manager, took over in 2001, the Lions are 24-72, with six consecutive double-digit losing seasons. Coach Rod Marinelli hopes his first two drafts, which landed linebacker Ernie Sims in 2006 and maybe the best player of 2007 in wide receiver Calvin Johnson, are the foundation of better things. First on the agenda is to lean on running back Tatum Bell to give offensive coordinator Mike Martz a running game better than last season's dead-last attack of just 70.6 yards per game.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

2006 record -- 8-8, second place.

Report date, site -- Friday (rookies and veterans); St. Norbert College, DePere, Wis.

The buzz -- Not much changed about the roster -- the youngest in the league last season -- during the offseason, which might reflect how general manager Ted Thompson felt about the four consecutive victories to end 2006. Franchise quarterback Brett Favre (18 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, 72.7 passer rating) is back for a 17th season, but he can't be happy about the lack of upgrades to an offense that somehow finished ninth overall despite a running game that was in the league's bottom third. Running back Brandon Jackson will challenge -- and needs to beat out -- Vernand Morency for the top spot. Green Bay's defense (a respectable 12th in 2006) will be led by defensive end Aaron Kampman and second-year linebacker A.J. Hawk.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

2006 record -- 6-10, third place.

Report date, site -- Wednesday (rookies and veterans); Minnesota State University, Mankato, Minn.

The buzz -- The Vikings were one of the teams that passed on drafting quarterback Brady Quinn. Instead, second-year coach Brad Childress is banking -- or is it gambling? -- on second-year pro Tarvaris Jackson, who struggled (two touchdown passes, four interceptions, 62.5 rating) in his four games (two starts) late last season. This is Jackson's camp. Period. Credit the Vikings for using the draft to upgrade around their unproven quarterback, with running back Adrian Peterson a potential superstar and wide receiver Sidney Rice an immediate upgrade for one of the league's worst receiving corps.

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