2009 NFL Preview: #6 Baltimore Ravens

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Offseason Additions: Matt Birk (C); L.J. Smith (TE); Domonique Foxworth (CB); John Beck (QB).

Offseason Losses: Bart Scott (LB); Jason Brown (C); Chris McAlister (CB); Jim Leonhard (S); Lorenzo Neal (FB).

Player to Watch: Ed Reed, S.
Some believe that Reed is one of the more overrated players in the league because he’ll take too many chances attempting to make the big play and will often get burned because of it. He’s also not the greatest in run support because he’ll drag ballcarriers down as opposed to always running full speed and laying a thundering hit. But the bottom line is that Reed is the best playmaking safety in the league and he often masks mistakes (not his, but his teammates) with his tremendous speed and playmaking ability. Reed isn’t overrated – he deserves all the accolades that he receives and he’s one of the best – period.

Team Strength: Baltimore’s successful running game starts up front. Massive left tackle Jared Gaither and mobile left guard Ben Grubbs are two rising starts along the Ravens’ offensive line, one in which that improved this offseason with the addition of veteran center Matt Birk. The former Viking Birk is one of the smartest centers in the game and his pre-snap adjustments will help promising rookie right tackle Michael Oher make a smooth transition from college to the pros. Throw in a trio of capable starting running backs in Ray Rice, Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee and the Ravens will once again be near the top of the league in rushing.

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2009 NFL Preview: #7 New York Giants

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Offseason Additions: Chris Canty (DE); Michael Boley (LB); C.C. Brown (S); Rocky Bernard (DT).

Offseason Losses: Plaxico Burress (WR); Derrick Ward (RB); James Butler (S); Amani Toomer (WR); Reuben Droughns (RB); R.W. McQuarters (CB).

Player to Watch: Kenny Phillips, S.
The Giants stole Phillips at the end of the first round in the 2008 draft. Following his rookie season, he added 16 pounds in hopes that the added weight will make him a more ferocious hitter and given his solid coverage ability, the Giants could use him the same way the Ravens use Ed Reed in that Phillips will move around the field at will. While expectations should be tempered considering this is only his second year, he reportedly is already making strides as a leader on the Giants’ defense and it appears that the sky is the limit in terms of his potential.

Team Strength: GM Jerry Reese has a philosophy that a team can never have enough pass rushers, so he spent this offseason bringing in free agents like Rocky Bernard and Chris Canty, both of whom can shoot the gap from their tackle positions. While Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins will remain the starters because of their run-stuffing abilities, Bernard and Canty will see plenty of action in a rotation and they add to an already excellent pass-rushing defensive line that also features ends Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka. Tuck wore down at the end of the year last season (as many Giants did) and Umenyiora didn’t play after having season-ending knee surgery in preseason. So the Giants plan on using a three-man rotation at end to keep everybody fresh. Even Dave Tollefson will see a fair amount of playing time for a Giants team that will once again get after the quarterback.

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2009 NFL Preview: #8 Green Bay Packers

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Offseason Additions: Duke Preston (C); Anthony Smith (S).

Offseason Losses: Mark Tauscher (OT); Colin Cole (DT).

Player to Watch: Aaron Rodgers, QB.
In throwing for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns in his first year as Green Bay’s starter, Rodgers made Packer fans completely forget about the Brett Favre era. Okay, so he didn’t do that, but he did put to rest a lot of the doubt fans had about whether or not he could become a legitimate franchise quarterback. Now entering his second year, Rodgers’ challenge is to take this team to the next level and get them into the playoffs. His best attribute is that he’s fundamentally sound and most of his success (unsurprisingly) comes when he gets the ball out of his hands quickly. He has also shown good mobility outside of the pocket and isn’t afraid to take a risk in order to cash in on a big play. The problem that he sometimes gets into is when he fails to progress through all of his reads. While this can be an issue for most quarterbacks, it’s the only thing that is holding Rodgers back from being great. He can’t fall into patterns of making pre-snap reads and then not adjusting when the defense reacts to where he wants to go with the ball. If he works through his progressions more and cuts down on the mistakes, he’s going to do big things in 2009.

Team Strength: While age is a problem, the Packers strength (at least on defense) is their secondary. At 33, Charles Woodson continues to be one of the top corners in the game and doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Al Harris is losing a step and didn’t have a great preseason, which is why many think that nickelback Tramon Williams will push for more playing time and eventually succeed Harris at the corner position opposite Woodson. Williams has excellent speed, as does dimeback Will Blackmon, and is an emerging starter. For as good as Woodson is, free safety Nick Collins is the star of this group. Collins is outstanding in coverage and seemingly knows where the quarterback wants to go with the ball every time he drops back to pass. He doesn’t play the run particularly well, but that job is reserved for hard-hitting strong safety Atari Bigby, so Green Bay doesn’t lose much in that area.

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2009 NFL Preview: #9 Tennessee Titans

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Offseason Additions: Jovan Haye (DT); Nate Washington (WR); Patrick Ramsey (QB).

Offseason Losses: Albert Haynesworth (DT); Justin McCareins (WR); Brandon Jones (WR).

Player to Watch: Tony Brown, DT.
The Titans lost their biggest and best defender this offseason when Albert Haynesworth signed a lucrative free agent contract with the Redskins. So meet Tony Brown, the man responsible for filling Haynesworth’s massive shoes. At 6’3” and 285 pounds, Brown isn’t the gargantuan that the 6’7”, 320-pound Haynesworth is, but that’s not to say that Brown isn’t capable of manning his former teammate’s old position. He nearly made the Pro Bowl last season and while he definitely benefited from offensive lines doubling Haynesworth, Brown is great at getting off the ball and causing havoc in the opponent’s backfields. While replacing Haynesworth won’t be easy, if Brown learns how to handle double-teams then the Titans’ defensive line should be fine.

Team Strength: The Titans’ strength is that they carry out the Cover 2 scheme to perfection. Losing Haynesworth and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz (who took over as head coach of the Lions) hurts, but Chuck Cecil is up to the task of taking over a unit that is technically sound as a group. Tennessee does an excellent job of keeping its linemen fresh by rotating them throughout the game. Their depth is outstanding and all of their linemen know how to disrupt their opponents’ game plans. But for as good as the Titans are up front, the secondary is what separates them from the pack. Cortland Finnegan has developed into a solid cover corner and while he needs to cut back on the penalties, he’s emerged as a rising star in the league. Nick Harper is aging but a perfect fit in the Cover 2 scheme based on his skill set and safeties Chris Hope and Michael Griffin know their jobs and carry out their assignments to a T. Of course, linebacker Keith Bulluck continues to be the heartbeat of the Titans’ defense.

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2009 NFL Preview: #10 Dallas Cowboys

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Offseason Additions: Igor Olshansky (DE); Keith Brooking (LB); Gerald Sensabaugh (S).

Offseason Losses: Terrell Owens (WR); Chris Canty (DE); Greg Ellis (DE); Zach Thomas (LB); Roy Williams (S).

Player to Watch: Tony Romo, QB.
Romo is at a crossroads in his career. He has the talent necessary to succeed and enough weapons around him to be great. But whether or not he takes the next step as a NFL quarterback is up to him. The Cowboys are hoping that with T.O. out of the picture, Romo can help this team cash in on its potential. If Romo elevates his game to the next level, the Cowboys can be as good as any team in the league. But if he continues to try and get by with only his athletic talent, he and the ‘Boys will once again fall short. The floor is yours, Tony.

Team Strength: With Owens gone, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett will now be a run-first playcaller, which is good because the Cowboys are built to move the ball on the ground. They have a trio of capable backs in Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, who all bring something different to the field. Barber is a pile-mover when healthy and can be tough to bring down in the fourth quarter after a defense has been worn down. Jones is a speedster with rare explosion and Choice has excellent quickness and lateral movement. Granted, Barber and Jones need to stay healthy, but if Garrett uses a successful rotation for his backs then everyone should stay on the field in ’09. Fullback Deon Anderson is also a key component to the run game, not to mention an offensive line that features Flozell Adams, Marc Colombo, Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis, who all fit the mold of good-to-great run-blockers.

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