NFC West scouting report
1. ST. LOUIS RAMS
Coach: Mike Martz (1st year)
Last playoff berth: 1999
Last division title: 1999
Last Super Bowl: 1999
1999 finish: 13-3
Starters gone: C Mike Gruttadauria (FA), OT Fred Miller (FA), SS Billy Jenkins (trade).
Key additions: C Steve Everitt, HB Trung Canidate.
Outlook: The defending Super Bowl champions scored more points last season than all but two teams to ever play the game and have nearly all their weapons back, so who's going to stop them in this weak division? Skeptics wonder if quarterback Kurt Warner is a one-year wonder despite the fact he put up some of the most remarkable numbers in NFL history last season. The Rams return 19 of their 22 starters, which gives them a solid base. Offensively they have one of the fastest teams in the league with running back Marshall Faulk and wideouts Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Az-Zahir Hakim. Defensively 10 starters return to a unit that allowed only 23 touchdowns and made 29 interceptions. It is a fast unit led by defensive end Kevin Carter (17 sacks a year ago) and speedy middle linebacker London Fletcher (90 tackles). They have been built for Dome play with so much speed they force turnovers.
2. CAROLINA PANTHERS
Coach: George Seifert (10th year, 116-43)
Last playoff berth: 1996
Last division title: 1996
Last Super Bowl: None
1999 finish: 8-8
Starters gone: WR Patrick Jeffers (injury), SLB Kevin Greene (retired), WLB Michael Barrow (cut), SS Brent Alexander (cut), K John Kasay (injury).
Key additions: G James Dexter, DE Chuck Smith, DE Reggie White, DT Eric Swann, LB Lee Woodall, CB Jimmy Hitchcock, RB Natrone Means, DB Rashard Anderson, S Deon Grant.
Outlook: The Panthers hope to pick up where they ended last season after finishing with a 6-2 rush. That was before Seifert rebuilt his entire front four, luring White out of retirement, Swann out of an Arizona hospital bed, and Smith from the division-rival Falcons, where he led the team with 10 sacks last season. The pressure they are supposed to put on opposing quarterbacks must develop because a year ago that defense allowed 27 points or more eight times. That made it difficult for the offense to keep pace, despite 35-year-old quarterback Steve Beuerlein having a career year. He's already lost big-playmaker Jeffers for the season and so must make do with Muhsin Muhammad and untested Donald Hayes and Dialleo Burks. Running back Tim Biakabutuka averaged 5.2 yards last year and is productive when healthy. He's just too often unhealthy, having never played a full NFL season. He's backed by Natrone Means, who is recovering slowly from his own knee problems. This is an older team that seems to be going for instant victory or bust.
3. ATLANTA FALCONS
Coach: Dan Reeves (20th year, 177-136-1)
Last playoff berth: 1998
Last division title: 1998
Last Super Bowl: 1998
1999 finish: 5-11
Starters gone: C Robbie Tobeck (FA), DL Des Lester Archambeau (FA), DL Chuck Smith (FA).
Key additions: WR Shawn Jefferson, DE Brady Smith, CB Ashley Ambrose, RB Ron Rivers, LB Marcus Buckley, T Travis Claridge, G Anthony Redmon.
Outlook: Two things have to happen for the Falcons to approach their 1998 Super Bowl performance and rebound from a disasterous 1999. Quarterback Chris Chandler and running back Jamal Anderson must be kept in one piece. Anderson rushed for 1,846 yards in '98 but went down with a knee injury last season and is still recovering. He's playing and claims he hits the holes with the same speed and power, but the Falcons had enough concern to bring in Rivers halfway through training camp. He's adequate but no Anderson. As for Chandler, Atlanta is 21-9 when he starts and finishes the same game and 5-13 when he doesn't. That should make the offensive line's goal pretty clear. But there are problems at left guard and right tackle that have not been solved. Ex-Patriot Jefferson was brought in to replace the speed at wide receiver lost when Tony Martin was released a year ago. As for the defense, former No. 1 pick Patrick Kerney is being counted on to replace Chuck Smith's 10 sacks.
4. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Coach: Jim Haslett (1st year)
Last playoff berth: 1992
Last division title: 1991
Last Super Bowl: None
1999 finish: 3-13
Starters gone: WR Andre Hastings (cut), WR Eddie Kennison (trade), TE Cam Cleeland (injury), DE Brady Smith (FA), LB Kevin Mitchell (cut), CB Ashley Ambrose (FA), P Tommy Barnhardt (cut).
Key additions: QB Jeff Blake, WR Jake Reed, WR Joe Horn, TE Andrew Glover, DT Norman Hand, LB Charlie Clemons, CB Steve Israel, P Toby Gowin, WR Willie Jackson, C Jerry Fontenot, FS Darren Perry, DE Darren Howard.
Outlook: Jeff Blake and fleet receivers have been brought in to take the focus off running back Ricky Williams, but they have yet to jell. Until Blake begins to hit Horn and Reed with the deep ball consistently, Williams will faced stacked defenses designed to wear him out, as they did a year ago. The line is young and strong but can open holes only so wide if facing eight-man fronts. It's up to Blake and his receivers to make defenses play honest, and they didn't get that done in preseason. Defensively, the Saints are bolstered by the healthy return of Pro Bowl defensive end Joe Johnson, who was lost last year to major knee surgery. He's ably assisted by defensive tackles La'Roi Glover and Hand. They give the Saints a solid run defense, and Glover and Johnson are proven pass rushers as well. The big defensive problem is in the secondary, where Israel was supposed to start at cornerback but was lost for the season in the first exhibition game.
5. SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
Coach: Steve Mariucci (4th year, 31-21)
Last playoff berth: 1998
Last division title: 1997
Last Super Bowl: 1994
1999 finish: 4-12
Starters gone: QB Steve Young (retired), SS Tim McDonald (cut), SLB Lee Woodall (cut), DE Gabe Wilkins (cut).
Key additions: LB Julian Peterson, CB Ahmed Plummer, WR Kevin Williams, DE Anthony Pleasant, QB Rick Mirer, DE John Engelberger.
Outlook: The once-proud 49ers may be the worst team in football this side of Cleveland because they have no depth. Genius general manager Bill Walsh has been forced to dismantle them while facing major salary cap problems, and that has resulted in a thin lineup with few solid backups. Quarterback Jeff Garcia is improving and he still has good receivers in Jerry Rice, J.J. Stokes, Terrell Owens, and Tai Street, but will he get the time to deliver the ball behind a porous line.