2009 NFL Preview: #1 New England Patriots

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Offseason Additions: Derrick Burgess (DE/OLB); Leigh Bodden (CB); Chris Baker (TE); Joey Galloway (WR); Fred Taylor (RB); Paris Lenon (LB); Tully Banta-Cain (LB).

Offseason Losses: Richard Seymour (DE); Matt Cassel (QB); Rodney Harrison (S); Heath Evans (FB); Jabar Gaffney (WR); LaMont Jordan (RB); Deltha O’Neal (CB); Lewis Sanders (CB).

Player to Watch: Tom Brady, QB.
After missing virtually all of last year following a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 of the season, Brady is completely healthy again and ready to pick up where he left off in 2007 when he led the Patriots to an undefeated regular season. In preseason, Brady looked like the same quarterback that gives coordinators and defensive backs nightmares, routinely hooking up with receiver Randy Moss and showing no ill effects of the injury. By all accounts, it seems like nothing has changed and considering Brady will be protected by the best offensive line in football, New England is once again a Super Bowl favorite.

Team Strength: Thanks to Brady, receivers Moss and Wes Welker, and the best pass-protecting offensive line in football, the Pats’ passing game will once again be lethal. Will it be as explosive as it was in 2007 now that Brady is playing on a repaired knee and former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is now in Denver? It’s definitely a possibility. Brady is completely healthy and even though Moss is another year older, he still commands double teams and that allows Welker to get underneath coverages and burn defenses once he gets into open space. Plus, losing McDaniels isn’t as crippling as one would think because Bill Belichick does such a great job of grooming his assistants that when one moves on, another one takes his place without missing a beat. New England might not average 37 points a game like it did in ’07, but Brady and company will be feared again.

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2009 NFL Preview: #2 Pittsburgh Steelers

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Offseason Additions: Shaun McDonald (WR); Keiwan Ratliff (CB).

Offseason Losses: Bryant McFadden (CB); Jamel White (RB); Larry Foote (LB); Nate Washington (WR); Byron Leftwich (QB), Anthony Smith (S).

Player to Watch: Lawrence Timmons, LB.
While defensive teammates Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton will receive more accolades heading into the season, Timmons will be one of the reasons why the Steelers will be even better defensively in 2009. Timmons replaces Larry Foote at the inside linebacker position next to Farrior and immediately provides an upgrade in the pass-rushing department. Foote was primarily used as a run-stopper on first and second downs, but Pittsburgh will make Timmons an every-down linebacker and exploit his speed and quickness in order to cause havoc in opponents’ backfields. Timmons could become a star in the NFL very soon.

Team Strength: If the Steelers win the Super Bowl again this year, it’ll be because they have one of the fastest and most ferocious defenses in the entire league. Pittsburgh returns 9 of its 11 starters on the defensive side of the ball this year and at least one of the new starters (Timmons) is better than the player he’s replacing (Foote). Polamalu continues to be the backbone of the Steelers’ defense, although he wouldn’t nearly be as good as he is without the rest of his teammates executing their jobs to perfection. The heat-seeking missile posing as a NFL safety gets to roam around the field at will and use his excellent athletic ability because he knows that the 10 other guys will always be where they need to be. In turn, that allows defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to draw up schemes that constantly suffocate opponents’ running games and get consistent pressure on the quarterback. From Poloamalu and Ike Taylor, to Harrison, Woodley and Farrior, to Smith, Hampton and Brett Keisel, the Steelers defense is the most star-studded unit in the league.

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2009 NFL Preview: #3 Philadelphia Eagles

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Offseason Additions: Jason Peters (OT); Stacy Andrews (OT); Michael Vick (QB); Leonard Weaver (FB); Sean Jones (S).

Offseason Losses: Brian Dawkins (S); Tra Thomas (OT); Jon Runyan (OT); L.J. Smith (TE); Correll Buckhalter (RB); Sean Considine (S).

Player to Watch: LeSean “Shady” McCoy, RB.
McCoy will get plenty of opportunities to be a playmaker in Philadelphia’s offense and there’s always a chance that Brian Westbrook will miss time throughout the season. McCoy has tremendous playmaking ability, is shifty, and is gaining valuable experience with Westbrook sidelined with knee and ankle injuries. But what has impressed his coaches and teammates the most so far has been his toughness and blitz-pick up ability. One of the knocks on him coming out of PITT was that he might not be able to survive running in between the tackles in the NFL. But so far, he is dispelling that notion and has been awfully impressive.

Team Strength: The Eagles got younger and better on the offensive line this offseason when they replaced tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan with Jason Peters and Shawn Andrews. Peters was acquired via a trade with the Bills and is one of the more dominating left tackles in the game. Quarterback Donovan McNabb will have plenty of protection (even though Peters gave up a league-worst 11.5 sacks last season, which stemmed from a training camp holdout) and Westbrook and McCoy should have no problem running directly behind Peters’ 6’4”, 340-pound frame. Guard Stacy Andrews excels at getting under defensive linemen’s pads and driving them straight back, while left guard Todd Herremans is vastly underrated.

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2009 NFL Preview: #4 San Diego Chargers

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Offseason Additions: Kevin Burnett (LB).

Offseason Losses: Igor Olshansky (DE); Mike Goff (G); Jeremy Newberry (C).

Player to Watch: Vincent Jackson, WR.
Once thought of as a player that would never reach his full potential, Jackson is a star in the making after hauling in 59 receptions for 1,098 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Built like a body builder, Jackson has drawn comparisons to the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald because of his size (6’5”, 230 pounds) and athletic ability. He gives quarterback Philip Rivers a legit deep threat in the passing game.

Team Strength: After excelling in the pass-rushing area during their deep playoff run in 2007, the Chargers struggled to get after the quarterback last year. Now that linebacker Shawne Merriman is back after missing virtually all of last season following knee surgery, the Bolts can get back to terrorizing quarterbacks. The player happiest to see Merriman back is outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, who struggled with his teammate on the sidelines last year. And if Merriman is slow to recover or suffers a setback, first round pick Larry English will take his place after excelling as a pass rusher at Northern Illinois.

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2009 NFL Preview: #5 Indianapolis Colts

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Offseason Additions: Adam Seward (LB/released in preseason).

Offseason Losses: Marvin Harrison (WR); Dominic Rhodes (RB); Keiwan Ratliff (CB); Josh Thomas (DE).

Player to Watch: Anthony Gonzalez, WR.
Now that longtime veteran Marvin Harrison is no longer in Indy, Gonzalez is going to get a ton of passes thrown his way in 2009. The former first round pick runs excellent routes and has displayed soft hands throughout his short career. He becomes a first-time starter in his third season, which is the perfect time because most pro receivers don’t develop until year three. Playing across from Reggie Wayne and receiving pinpoint passes from Peyton Manning only adds to the excitement surrounding Gonzalez this season.

Team Strength: The Colts lost two important pieces to their offense when offensive coordinator Tom Moore and offensive line coach Howard Mudd retired in the offseason. Or at least so it seemed. Both were re-hired (they had to retire to protect their pensions) by Colts owner Jim Irsay as consultants, so while their titles are different, they’ll essentially still have the same roles. The point is that the Colts will have the same potent offense that they’ve had for years, led of course by Manning. Wayne, Gonzalez and tight end Dallas Clark give Manning three excellent weapons to throw to and Peyton is so good at getting the ball out of his hands quickly that he could have five chipmunks blocking for him and he’d still throw 30-plus touchdowns. The key will be whether or not Joseph Addai can bounce back after rushing for only 544 yards last season behind a suspect run-blocking unit. Either way, rookie first rounder Donald Brown is going to get a fair amount of touches.

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