NFC's burning personnel questions
Should Marion Barber replace Julius Jones as the feature back?
Barber's tough, physical running style makes him an ideal runner in the Cowboys' power offense and he should be better than Jones over the course of a 16-game season. After rushing for over 90 or more yards in five of the first seven contests, Jones only rushed for over 100 yards once and failed to gain over 75 yards in the remaining contests. His declining production over the course of the season is a concern and one of the reasons why changing their roles makes the most sense.
NEW YORK GIANTS
How do the Giants replace Tiki Barber's production?
Tiki Barber accounted for over 40 percent of the Giants total offense last season and had rushed for over 1,500 yards in three consecutive seasons. Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns will fill the void in the running game. Their running game shouldn't miss a beat, but replacing Barber in the passing game will be the biggest problem. He was the team's third-leading receiver last season and a major part of their passing attack throughout his career. New offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride favors a one-back set featuring three and four receivers, so expect Sinorice Moss and Steve Smith to see more balls head in their direction to ease the loss of Barber.
Can the Eagles continue to be a high-powered offense without a big-name receiver?
After Donovan McNabb was injured last season, they relied more on running back Brian Westbrook. His emergence as a runner forced defenses to put eight defenders in the box, which created big play opportunities in the passing game even though there was no classic No. 1 wideout. Reggie Brown and Hank Baskett quietly averaged over 17 yards per reception and combined for 29 receptions over 20 yards. Throw in tight end L.J. Smith and free-agent signee Kevin Curtis and the Eagles will be OK.
How will the addition of LaRon Landry improve the Redskins weak pass rush?
Landry teams with Pro Bowler Sean Taylor to give the Skins arguably the best safety tandem in the NFL. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to bring pressure from all angles and now has more options with Landry and Taylor possessing the same set of skills in the back end. Each can play in the deep middle of the field and both are skilled blitzers off the edge. Williams is a disciple of Buddy Ryan and Jeff Fisher, who both used the "46" defense extensively to pressure the quarterback. With the addition of Landry and the increased confidence in their corners -- Shawn Springs, Carlos Rogers and Fred Smoot -- the Redskins will increase their sack totals by relying on exotic blitzes instead of sitting back in conventional coverage.
Is Rex Grossman still the right guy to lead this team?
Yes. Despite his inconsistencies and struggles during last season, Rex gives them the best option at the position. In his first full season as a starter, he passed for almost 3,200 yards with 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. He passed for two or more touchdowns in seven games and had six games where his passer efficiency rating was over 100. The problem is the turnovers, but I think he can improve in that area significantly this season.
How can the addition of Calvin Johnson help the Lions' weak rushing offense?
Calvin Johnson teams with Mike Furrey and Roy Williams to give the Lions one of the most explosive receiving corps in the league. Mike Martz now has the ability to dictate the flow of the game to the defense by using his personnel in various ways. By using three- and four- receiver sets on early downs, defenses will be forced to send their nickel and dime packages on the field to match up. With the linebackers off the field, Tatum Bell and Kevin Jones have the advantage of running against smaller defensive backs. Secondly, the spread sets featuring Johnson and Williams on the outside creates match-up problems. The prospect of leaving corners alone versus the talented twosome is a scary proposition for defensive coordinators. They will counter by using more Cover Two to make sure there is safety help over the top. With all of the attention being paid to the passing game, the Lions will catch defense off guard with draws and quick hitters.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Have the Packers surrounded Brett Favre with enough weapons to be successful?
No. The Packers let running back Ahman Green walk via free agency and have failed in their attempts to acquire another playmaker to pair with Donald Driver in the passing game. Vernand Morency and Noah Herron will attempt to carry the load, but neither is as good as Green. Greg Jennings had a solid rookie season, but they need an established receiver to ease the pressure off Driver. Unless they make a move over the summer, this is a much weaker offense than Brett had last year.
Do the Vikings have enough weapons in the passing game for Tavaris Jackson to be successful?
No. Disappointed with the play of former first-round pick Troy Williamson, they signed Bobby Wade in free agency, but he is ideally suited to be a third receiver. Rookie receivers take time to become effective, so draftees Sidney Rice and Aundrae Allison likely won't step up and be primary guys. The recipe for success with young quarterbacks is a strong running game and experienced receivers outside. While the Vikings have the running game in place, their youth and inexperience will prevent Tavaris from being successful as a passer this season.
How will the offseason injuries of Rod Coleman and Demorrio Williams affect the Falcons' defense?
Losing Coleman and Williams puts the Falcons defense in a serious bind. With Grady Jackson missing offseason workouts because of a contract dispute and Patrick Kerney leaving via free agency, the Falcons are facing the prospect of starting four new players on defense. Draftees Stephen Nicholas and Jamaal Anderson will step in for Williams and Kerney, while Jonathan Babineaux will start for Coleman. Given the struggles that the Falcons had on defense last season, it is hard to imagine their defense improving much with first- and second-year players slated to start at key positions. While the majority of the focus will be on Michael Vick and the offense, the defense will be the reason that the Falcons start out slowly under Bobby Petrino.
Will DeAngelo Williams supplant DeShaun Foster as the starting tailback?
Yes. Williams was effective in a limited role last season and his skills on the perimeter could give their running game a much needed boost. While Foster has been productive as the starter, injuries have robbed him of the burst and explosiveness he once had. Foster has become a downhill runner, rather than the explosive outside runner that he was earlier in his career. Both should be incorporated into the offense, but Williams deserves the bulk of the carries due to ability to make a big play.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Can tight end Eric Johnson actually make a great offense even better?
This is one of the most underrated signings of the offseason. The Saints led the league in passing last season, but rarely used the tight end. Johnson caught 82 passes in 2004 and has the potential to be a 50-plus catch receiver in this offense. Marques Colston and Reggie Bush will be the targets of double coverage, and Drew Brees will be forced to find other options. If Johnson can give them a threat in the middle of the field, the rest of the passing game will open up even more. This under-the-radar acquisition will keep the Saints' offense rolling at a high level.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Who wins the QB battle: Jeff Garcia or Chris Simms?
Garcia will be the Buccaneers starting quarterback in 2007. Garcia led the Eagles on an improbable playoff run by completing 61 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions. The confidence, poise and leadership that he displayed during that run is exactly what the Buccaneers need. In addition to those intangibles, Garcia's physical skills fit in perfectly in Jon Gruden's offense. He has enough mobility to move around in the pocket and is an accurate passer who has always completed nearly 60 percent of his passes. Gruden's most successful offenses have been led by veteran quarterbacks. Garcia gives him a player in the mold of his most productive pupil, Rich Gannon.
Will Edgerrin James bounce back from a sub-par 2006 season?
Edgerrin rushed for over 1,000 yards for the sixth time in eight years, but averaged a career low 3.4 yards per carry and failed to have a run over 20 yards for the first time in his career. His production fell far short of expectations and the Cardinals never established the running game that they needed to complement their passing attack.
New head coach Ken Whisenhunt orchestrated top-10 rushing attacks in Pittsburgh as offensive coordinator and is planning on building a power running game featuring Edgerrin as the workhorse. Their offensive line was upgraded with the signings of Mike Gandy and Al Johnson in free agency and they picked up Levi Brown with the No. 5 overall pick. And they added Terrelle Smith as a fullback to give Edgerrin a legitimate lead blocker. Based on the offensive line improvements and the track record of Whisenhunt, expect Edgerrin to re-establish himself as one of the top runners in the league.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Do the 49ers have enough pieces to make their 3-4 defense work?
No. After giving up a league high 25.8 points per game, the 49ers chose to rebuild their 3-4 defense by being aggressive in free agency and the draft. Nate Clements was signed to give them the shut-down corner that they needed, and free-agent signees Michael Lewis and Abrayo Franklin, upgraded their respective position. Tully Banta-Cain and first-round pick, Patrick Willis bring energy and toughness, but there are still major holes along the defensive line. They lack depth at defensive tackle and are without a dominant pass rusher at rush end/outside linebacker. Without the horses to pressure the quarterback, the 49ers won't have consistency on defense.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Will Dante Hall dramatically improve the Rams' woeful return game?
The Rams have ranked near the bottom of the league in both punt and kickoff returns since 2003, so they made draft-weekend deal to get Hall. I think Hall will return to Pro Bowl form now that he won't really have receiving duties and this exactly what St. Louis needed.
Will running back Shaun Alexander bounce back?
After leading the league in rushing in 2005, Alexander failed to reach 1,000 yards for the first time in his career since taking the starting role. His foot injury played a part in his dramatic decrease in production, but I think the real factor behind his declining production was the loss of Steve Hutchinson. Hutchinson and Walter Jones combined to form a dominating force on the left side of the line.
Alexander averaged more than 4.5 yards a carry in his first five seasons as a starter, but saw that average fall to 3.9 yards per carry in '06. Rob Sims and Pork Chop Womack failed to fill the vacancy left by Hutchinson's departure, and the Seahawks missed out on signing top free agent Kris Dielman in free agency. Former starting center Robbie Tobeck recently retired and his replacement, Chris Spencer, is recovering from a shoulder injury. With the offensive line in transition, expect Alexander's production to continue to decline.