Dwayne Bryant

2006 NFC North Preview

In Part Two of his eight-part 2006 NFL Preview, sports handicapper Dwayne Bryant provides his thoughts and predictions on the NFC North division. Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish.

1. CHICAGO BEARS

Offense: The Bears run-first attack will once again be led by running backs Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson. The duo shared carries last season and this season will most likely start the same way. Look for Benson to become the featured back at some point this season. The Bears didn’t use a high first-round pick on Benson just to have him share carries. The QB in this offense, whether it be Rex Grossman (most likely), Kyle Orton or Brian Griese, will again be just a caretaker thanks to a ball-control offense and a suffocating defense. Chicago has a young group of wide receivers to go with Muhsin Muhammad. Justin Gage, Mark Bradley and Bernard Berrian will challenge for the #2 WR spot. Chicago averaged just 256.3 yards and 16.3 points per game last season. Don’t expect much more in 2006.

Defense: Chicago’s unquestioned strength is their defense. This unit allowed only 12.6 points per game last season – tops in the league. Only CB Jerry Azumah (retired) and S Mike Green (trade) are gone from last year’s group. CB Ricky Manning was brought in via trade (Panthers) to fill the void left by Azumah’s absence. In 2005, the Bears D ranked second in yards allowed, tied for second in INTs, sixth in total takeaways and tied for eighth in sacks. The Bears do a great job of rushing the passer, led by ends Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye. DT Tommie Harris also returns to stuff the middle. MLB Brian Urlacher leads a talented LB corps. The secondary features Mike Brown, Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher. This group had 16 INTs and returned three of those for TDs last season.

Special Teams: This unit needs an upgrade. Kicker Robbie Gould connected on only 3 of 8 FG tries from outside 40 yards. The return teams left a lot to be desired as well. Speedy Bernard Berrian showed some promise and may give this unit a boost.

Prediction: The Bears, thanks to a suffocating defense and successful running game, should run away with this division again in 2006.

2. MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Offense: New head coach Brad Childress will install his version of the West Coast offense. That suits QB Brad Johnson just fine. Johnson doesn’t have a strong arm, but he does have an accurate arm for those short-to-intermediate throws. Receivers Koren Robinson, Travis Taylor and Troy Williamson should thrive in this system. Look for TE Jermaine Wiggins to have another solid season as well. The key to this offense is whether RB Chester Taylor can carry the load. Taylor did well in spot situations while with the Ravens and will have the luxury of playing behind a solid offensive line led by guard Steve Hutchinson. Taylor, who is also a solid receiving threat, will also benefit from having FB Tony Richardson opening the running lanes for him. No Culpepper and no Moss, but this offense still has plenty of potential.

Defense: Like many others, Minnesota is switching to the ever-popular Cover 2 scheme. The switch should bode well for this unit. The Vikes have two speedy ends in Kenechi Udeze and Erasmus James who can create all kinds of havoc. Look for rookie OLB Chad Greenway to start from the get-go and make an immediate impact. The strength of this unit looks to be the secondary, led by corners Fred Smoot and Antoine Winfield. This is a fast defense that should make a bunch of big plays this season. Normally, switching to a new scheme takes time before improvement is seen. In this case, however, Minnesota has the talent to make it work right from the beginning.

Special Teams: Mewelde Moore proved to be a solid punt returner, averaging 11.7 yards per return (third best in the league) and had one return TD. Koren Robinson ranked fifth in the league with a 26 yard average per kickoff return and also took one to the house. The Vikings upgraded this unit by adding kicker Ryan Longwell. Longwell has an 81.6 career FG percentage and should find the Metrodome a much easier place to kick than Lambeau Field.

Prediction: An improving defense, solid special teams play and an offense with much potential puts Minnesota second in the NFC North.

3. DETROIT LIONS

Offense: No offense is more intriguing than this one. The arrival of offensive guru Mike Martz as Detroit’s offensive coordinator provides plenty of optimism. The Lions offense features several former first-round draft picks, including Kevin Jones, Roy Williams, Mike Williams and Charles Rogers. One thing Martz has here that he didn’t have in St. Louis is big receivers. Williams, Williams and Rogers are all tall red zone targets. Two questions exist. First, can Jon Kitna or Josh McCown run this offense efficiently? And secondly, can this offensive line protect whoever is under center? I have my doubts about question one and even more doubts about question two.

Defense: The Lions are yet another team converting to the Cover 2 defense. New head coach Rod Marinelli is a defensive-minded coach who will look for improvement in this group. New defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson is known for being aggressive in blitzing and coverages. He’ll want to see more pressure from his front four than this group generated in 2005. First-round pick Ernie Sims teams up with Boss Bailey and Teddy Lehman to form the starting LB trio. This defense forced 31 turnovers and had 3 defensive TDs last season, so the talent is there. Expect to see the sack total rise. They’ll need to improve on the 127.5 rushing yards allowed per game in 2005.

Special Teams: Eddie Drummond will need to return to his 2004 form (4 return TDs). He was mediocre at best last season. Jason Hanson is a consistent kicker who should see his scoring chances increase in 2006.

Prediction: Detroit is a team on the rise and could be dangerous if the new offensive and defensive schemes are successful sooner rather than later. I look for a slow start, but a strong second half of the season for the Lions.

4. GREEN BAY PACKERS

Offense: Injuries absolutely decimated this group in 2005. The pack lost their #1 WR, Javon Walker, in the first game of the season. They lost his replacement (Robert Ferguson), too. They played their fourth and fifth-string RBs at various points in the season as well as their third-string TE. Brett Favre isn’t the QB he once was, but he’s also not as bad as he looked last season. Protecting Favre is a concern. Green Bay also needs a WR to step up and draw coverage away from him. With Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport injury prone, look for Samkon Gado to once again step up and take over the RB duties. With questions at literally every position, this unit may not fair much better than the injury-riddled 2005 version.

Defense: There are quite a few changes to this unit. Ryan Pickett takes over at tackle. First-round pick A.J. Hawk moves into a starting LB spot. CB Charles Woodson and S Marquand Manuel were brought in to upgrade the secondary. Another rookie, LB Abdul Hodge, could find his way into the starting lineup. The Pack have added some playmakers and still have book ends Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Aaron Kampman to pressure opposing QBs. Improvement may come in 2006, but it usually takes some time when a lot of changes are involved. This group should gel in the second half of the season.

Special Teams: Nothing to write home about here. The Pack’s kickoff-return team ranked last in the league in 2006 and the punt-return unit was average at best. Kicker Ryan Longwell, the Packers’ all-time leading scorer, took the money and ran to division-rival Minnesota. They’re left with Cowboys cast-off Billy Cundiff or Colts 2005 sixth-round pick, Dave Rayner. Ouch.

Prediction: Favre’s last hurrah will not be a good one. A new coaching staff, questions aplenty on offense, too many changes on defense and the loss of a solid kicker will leave Green Bay at the bottom of this division once again.

FINAL THOUGHTS: The Bears are the class of this division. Each of their division rivals must go through the transition associated with a new coaching staff. Chicago should be able to separate themselves from the pack early on, but look for Minnesota and Detroit to have solid second halves of the season.

Bullseye-Sports.com’s Dwayne Bryant gives his thoughts and predictions on the NFL’s NFC West division in 2006. Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish.

1. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Offense: The reigning NFC Champions took a major step toward repeating when they re-signed league MVP Shaun Alexander. Alexander set an NFL record by scoring 28 TDs. He also led the league with 1,880 rushing yards on a career-high 370 carries. That’s a huge workload. Believe in the Madden cover jinx? Alexander is on this year’s cover. His offensive line took a hit when free-agent Pro-Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson signed with Minnesota. QB Matt Hasselbeck has mastered Mike Holmgren’s offense. Hasselbeck threw 24 TD passes in 2005 and had just 9 INTs while compiling a stellar 98.2 QB rating. Darrell Jackson is Hasselbeck’s favorite target. D-Jack needs to stay healthy this season. Bobby Engram will occupy the slot this season. Jurevicius left for Cleveland, but his replacement, Nate Burleson, should do quite well opposite Jackson. TE Jerramy Stevens finally became a threat last season and should continue to produce in 2006. This offense led the NFL in 2005 with a 28.3 points-per-game average and should be close to that number again in 2006.

Defense: This unit was seventh in the league in 2005, allowing just 16.9 points per game. Their red-zone defense was second in the NFL behind only Chicago. They also led the league with 50 sacks. Ends Grant Wistrom & Bryce Fisher and tackles Chartric Darby & Rocky Bernard give Seattle a solid front four. Perhaps the biggest surprise in 2005 was the play of the LB corps, led by rookies Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill. Adding Julian Peterson to the fold should give the ‘Hawks one of the best front sevens in the league. The secondary is also solid with Michael Boulware and Ken Hamlin, who is returning from a head injury.

Special Teams: The return game needs improvement. Josh Scobey averaged just 22.5 yards on kickoff returns. Kicker Josh Brown didn’t get much FG practice last season thanks to Seattle’s league-high 57 TDs. He connected on only 18 of his 25 FG tries. Look for his numbers to up slightly, especially his success rate.

Prediction: The offense should produce again, provided Hutchinson’s replacement is adequate and Alexander avoids the Madden cover jinx. Super Bowl losers usually don’t fare too well the following season, but Seattle is clearly the class of this division and should waltz into the playoffs. Another Super Bowl run is certainly not out of the question.

2. ARIZONA CARDINALS

Offense: One of the biggest offseason moves was RB Edgerrin James coming over from the Colts. With receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald needing much defensive attention, plus the addition of rookie TE Leonard Pope as another receiving option, “Edge” shouldn’t see too many eight-man fronts. James won’t benefit from the line he had in Indy, but he should still find some decent running room here. He’s also a solid receiver, which gives QB Kurt Warner yet another weapon and a great safety valve when the pressure comes – and it will. Opponents know this line can be had and they also know Warner’s durability issues. However, the Cards drafted QB Matt Leinart (USC), who was the most NFL-ready signal caller in the draft. He could pressed into service sooner rather than later. This should be one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses in 2006.

Defense: The good news is, Arizona ranked eighth in the league in yards allowed in 2005. The bad news is, they also ranked 26th in the league in points allowed. The biggest improvement came from the run defense, which jumped from 27th in 2004 to tenth in 2005. If the Cards hope to contend for a playoff spot, they’ll need to improve their red-zone defense in a big way. This unit missed its leading sack-master, DE Bertrand Berry, for half the season. Berry registered six sacks in the first eight games of the season before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. Karlos Dansby led the LB group with two INT-return TDs. CB Antrel Rolle missed 11 games in his 2005 rookie campaign. Rolle has shutdown-corner potential, which should become more evident this season. Safety Adrian Wilson provides the secondary with big-play ability.

Special Teams: Neil Rackers had a monster 2005 season, hitting an amazing 40 of 42 FG attempts. Reggie Swinton handled punt and kickoff-return duties in 2005 with minimal results.

Prediction: This team is full of promise. Improvement is inevitable with a proven winner like Dennis Green at the controls. The offensive line is still a problem and the defense needs to show some improvement, too. An 8-8 season sounds about right for this bunch. The playoffs will have to wait at least another year.

3. ST. LOUIS RAMS

Offense: Gone is Mike Martz’s pass-happy attack. Enter new coach Scott Linehan, who’ll place more emphasis on the running game. That means an increased workload for stud RB Steven Jackson. Jackson is young, strong, quick and has great hands. Linehan knows he has talent in the passing game and he’ll use that talent to make for a more balanced offense than we’re used to seeing from the Rams. QB Marc Bulger, who only played in eight games in 2005, must stay healthy if this team has any chance to succeed. The Rams have three solid WRs in star Torry Holt, the aging but still-effective Isaac Bruce and emerging playmaker Kevin Curtis. Curtis had 60 catches and 6 TDs last season and could surpass Bruce on the depth chart. The Rams picked TEs Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd on Day One of the draft, which can only mean the TE will become more involved in Linehan’s system.

Defense: Pathetic. Horrible. Just plain awful. Say it however you’d like, this unit was an absolute disaster in 2005. They ranked 30th in the NFL in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed. They lacked playmakers and the 2006 version will be without SS Adam Archuleta, who fled to Washington. The good news is – there’s nowhere to go but up. They brought in DT La’Roi Glover from Dallas. Glover will shine in the 4-3 scheme and help to not only stop the run, but also rush the passer. That’ll help the rest of the line, including DE Leonard Little, the team’s top pass rusher. One problem this group has is the absence of another established DE to take the double teams away from Little. They’ve added LB Will Witherspoon from Carolina. He gives the LB corps an upgrade. Archuleta’s vacancy is filled by veteran Corey Chavous. The Rams took CB Tye Hill with their first-round draft pick. He’ll compete for a starting job in a secondary that still has some holes to fill.

Special Teams: The numbers say it all: 23rd in kickoff returns, 29th in punt returns, 29th in punt coverage and 30th in kickoff coverage. Obviously, major improvement is needed. The only special-teams bright spot was kicker Jeff Wilkins, who connected on 27 of 31 FG tries.

Prediction: New coaches. New scheme. These things take time to run efficiently. And too many defensive holes won’t help either. They’ll challenge Arizona for second in the division, but I see them falling short. 7-9 looks about right.

4. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Offense: QBs go through growing pains their first couple of seasons in the league, but Alex Smith’s rookie season couldn’t have gone much worse. Smith had a QB rating of 40.8, but he’s not the only one to blame. The 49ers had little-to-no weapons for Smith. They drafted TE Vernon Davis, who has the potential to have an immediate impact. They still have TE Eric Johnson, which could make two-TE sets very interesting. They brought in Antonio Bryant, a talented but moody WR. He looks like the top WR on the team, which is definitely not good. The Niners also brought in guard Larry Allen to bolster the o-line, which should bode well for RBs Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore. Barlow has averaged just 3.4 and 3.3 yards per carry over the last two seasons. His poor play paved the way for Gore, who tallied 608 yards on a solid 4.8 yards per carry. Based on those numbers, Gore appears to be the front-runner for the starter’s job, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Barlow get significant playing time as well.

Defense: Mike Nolan switched this team to the 3-4 defense last season, mostly because he had two talented OLBs in Julian Peterson and Andre Carter. They’re both gone – Carter to Washington and Peterson to Seattle. Having two new starters at OLB in this scheme will be tough. The secondary has holes, too, but welcomes back CB Mike Rumph from a foot injury. This unit ranked 30th in points allowed and 32nd (or last) in yards allowed in 2005. It looks like it’ll be another long season for this defense in 2006.

Special Teams: Otis Amey’s 75-yard punt-return TD was the lone bright spot on what was a poor return unit. Kicker Joe Nedney set a franchise record for FG percentage. Nedney made 26 of his 28 FG tries for a stellar 92.86% success rate.

Prediction: New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has a history of success with his RBs. 49ers fans better hope that continues because that defense cannot be allowed to stay on the field too long. More growing pains for Smith combined with a lack of weapons and a porous defense equals another long season in San Francisco. Anything better than 4-12 will surprise me.

FINAL THOUGHTS: The Seahawks, barring major injuries, will walk away with the division crown once again. Arizona is closing the gap and could sneak into a playoff spot with a little luck. The Rams need to further improve their defense before they can get back into the playoff picture. And the 49ers, with a young QB and porous defense, are a few years away from even sniffing a postseason berth.

In an eight-part series, sports handicapper Dwayne Bryant previews the 2006 NFL season. In Part One, Dwayne gives his thoughts and predictions on the NFC East.

Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish.

1. DALLAS COWBOYS

OFFENSE: The biggest news in Big D this offseason is the addition of receiver Terrell Owens. Owens’ presence immediately makes the Cowboys offense extremely potent. His ability means single coverage for Terry Glenn and more space over the middle for tight end Jason Witten. It also means more running room for running backs Julius Jones and Marion Barber. The Cowboys drafted Notre Dame tight end Anthony Fasano with the plan to eliminate the fullback role and go with a two-tight-end offense. Bill Parcells likes the idea of being able to use that package on all three downs to keep the opposing defense guessing. The only question on this offense is whether or not the offensive line can protect quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Dallas added some depth along the line by signing tackle Jason Fabini and also added guard Kyle Kosier to replace Larry Allen.

DEFENSE: Dallas’ switch to the 3-4 went rather well last season. The Dallas D ranked 12th in points allowed and 10th in yards allowed. OLB DeMarcus Ware, despite a mid-season slump, had a good rookie season, tallying eight sacks. Look for that number to improve in 2006. Second-year ends Marcus Spears and Chris Canty will rotate with Gregg Ellis to give the Cowboys good pass-rushing ability. Mammoth Jason Ferguson clogs the middle of the line. The LB corps will be improved by the additions of rookie OLB Bobby Carpenter and ILB Akin Ayodele. The secondary remains solid with cornerbacks Terence Newman and Anthony Henry and SS Roy Williams.

SPECIAL TEAMS: With all the TO talk, many overlook the signing of kicker Mike Vanderjagt. Vanderjagt is currently the most accurate FG kicker in NFL history. He won’t be kicking indoors anymore, but his career statistics show him to be equally successful kicking outdoors. Speedster Tyson Thompson broke franchise records for kickoff returns (57) and yards (1,399), but has yet to take one all the way.

PREDICTION: The offense will be more explosive and the young defense will show continued improvement in year two of the 3-4 scheme. The Cowboys are among the three best teams in the NFC and could very well end up in the NFC Championship game.

2. NEW YORK GIANTS

OFFENSE: QB Eli Manning made great progress last season and should take yet another step forward in 2006. RB Tiki Barber had a fantastic 2005 season, leading the NFL with 2,390 yards from scrimmage. If Barber holds up (he’s a member of the “Over 30 RB Club”), the Giants offense should be lethal once again. WR Plaxico Burress had a good first season in the Big Apple, totaling 1,214 yards and seven TDs. Rookie Sinorice Moss could overtake Amani Toomer as the team’s #2 WR. And let’s not forget TE Jeremy Shockey, who accounted for seven TDs in 2005. If Shockey can stay healthy, which is a big “if”, he could reach double-digit TDs in 2006.

DEFENSE: The Giants pass defense was poor in 2005, ranking 27th in passing yards allowed. One certainly can’t pin the blame on the defensive line. Ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora combined for 26 of the team’s 41 sacks. CBs Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters and safety Will Demps have been brought in to help solidify the secondary. LB LaVar Arrington has also been added to improve the front seven. The Giants recorded 37 takeaways last season (3rd best in the league) and will look to improve on that number with the talent they’ve added.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Forget the Seattle game, which is easy to do unless you’re a Giants fan. Jay Feely connected on 35 of 42 FG tries in 2005 with a long of 52 yards. Feely led all NFL kickers with 148 points last season and should see plenty of scoring chances this season as well. Chad Morton is a dangerous return man who can swing field position in the Giants’ favor every time he touches the ball.

PREDICTION: Manning will continue to improve and the offense will continue to produce. The question is the defense. Even with the players they’ve added, it’ll take some time for that secondary to gel as a unit. Expect the G-men to battle for second place in the NFC East and also for a Wildcard spot.

3. WASHINGTON REDSKINS

OFFENSE: Does QB Mark Brunell have anything left in the tank? After a great start to the 2005 season, Brunell faded badly and one has to wonder when the keys will be turned over to Jason Campbell. The ‘Skins brought in receivers Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El to take the heat off Santana Moss. TE Chris Cooley emerged as a red zone threat, scoring seven TDs last season. The focal point of the offense is RB Clinton Portis, who improved his numbers in year two as a Redskin. Portis rushed for 1,516 yards and scored 11 TDs last season. With even average QB play, this offense has some potential.

DEFENSE: The ‘Skins added Andre Carter in an attempt to improve their pass rush. Carter, who played OLB in the 49ers 3-4 scheme, has great quickness and will be an upgrade to this unit. It’s unlikely that will be enough to generate a solid pass rush from the front four. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will still have to use aggressive play-calling to pressure opposing QBs. The LB corps will be minus LaVar Arrington, but is still a solid group that should keep the ‘Skins respectable defensively. The strength of this defense is in the secondary. Shawn Springs is a solid cover corner and the safety tandem of Sean Taylor and Adam Archuleta should keep Washington among the NFL leaders in pass defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker John Hall battled injuries last season, but still managed to make 12 of 14 FG tries. The ‘Skins were 11th in kickoff-return average last season and had two return TDs. They also ranked 28th in punt-return average. Expect Randle El to improve that phase of Washington’s special teams unit.

PREDICTION: Everything comes down to QB play. Brunell’s best days are behind him and Campbell lacks experience, which is why I place them third in this division.

4. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

OFFENSE: With Terrell Owens out of the picture, look for the Eagles to return to their “spread the ball around” philosophy. There is no clear-cut #1 WR in this pass-happy offense. Reggie Brown had a good rookie campaign and shows great potential. Todd Pinkston and Greg Lewis are also viable options. The Eagles also have rookies Jason Avant and Jeremy Bloom in the fold. QB Donovan McNabb seemed to favor TE L.J. Smith (61 catches) last season. RB Brian Westbrook doesn’t get a ton of carries, but he’s a matchup nightmare in the passing game. If he and McNabb can stay healthy, this offense should produce quite nicely.

DEFENSE: This once-powerful unit plummeted to 27th in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed in 2005. Even more startling, Jimmie Johnson’s blitz-happy unit only recorded 29 sacks on the season. Philly signed DE Darren Howard to improve the pass rush and drafted DT Brodrick Bunkley to solidify the interior of the line. The Eagles have some talent at linebacker and the secondary should be play better this season with improved line play.

SPECIAL TEAMS: David Akers battled an injury last season, but remains one of the league’s best kickers. Reno Mahe led the NFL with a 12.8-yard punt return average in a half-season’s work.

PREDICTION: I place the Eagles last in the NFC East, but they are capable of finishing much higher if all the pieces fall into place. In any other division, I’d have them placed above this spot.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Cowboys are my choice to win the NFC East, but any team in this division could win it if the cards fall their way. Dallas appears to be heading to the top of the NFC. The Giants will battle for the division title with an improving Eli Manning. The Redskins could win it too, but will need solid QB play. And I don’t see that happening. The Eagles have a shot with McNabb back under center, but need better play out of their defensive line. This is definitely the toughest division in my opinion. Even though they each play six division games, I don’t see any of them finishing worse than 7-9.