The League

Les Carpenter
Staff Writer

Les Carpenter

Yahoo! Sports reporter and former NFL writer for The Washington Post.

The Usual Suspects

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Pittsburgh --The Steelers had what proved to be the NFL's toughest defense last year and did nothing in the offseason to destroy that notion. They can cover for the loss of cornerback Bryant McFadden, who was their most significant departure in free agency, and have done a smart job of attacking what was, at times, last season's biggest hole: their offensive line. The drafting of center A.Q. Shipley and guard Kraig Urbik add depth on the line and the first round selection of defensive tackle Evander Hood may pay immediate dividends. Otherwise the Steelers have the same structure as they did last year, with an aggressive defense, strong running game and stable leadership from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
One concern could be Roethlisberger's durability. He had at least two significant concussions in the past three years. The loss of backup quarterback Byron Leftwich to Tampa Bay could become a issue as the year goes on.

New York Giants -- While the Redskins made a huge free agent splash throwing all their money at two players, the Giants methodically improved an already outstanding defense with above average, underpriced players. Defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, defensive end Chris Canty and linebacker Michael Boley were all signed with little fanfare on the first few days of free agency. While all three had off-years last season, each is talented enough to thrive as a complimentary piece in a defense on which Osi Umenyiora returns from injury. The problem will be on offense, replacing Plaxico Burress, who despite all of his problems, was still the team's best pass catching threat. New York drafted two receivers taking Hakeem Nicks in the first round and Ramses Barden in the third. While both have talent to make an impact there is a danger in relying on top of the draft receivers. Nicks, especially, will be expected to be a featured pass catcher. That may be too much too soon.

Philadelphia -- By the end of the season the Eagles had proven to be a team back on the rise, especially with the rebirth of quarterback Donovan McNabb. He should be even better this season after Philadelphia drafted Missouri receiver Jeremy Maclin whose explosive speed gives the Eagles a solid deep passing threat. Maclin is also an outstanding kick returner, bringing Phildelphia several versatile pass offensive threats in DeSean Jackson and Brian Westbrook. McNabb's protection also got better with the trade for tackle Jason Peters. The drafting of Macho Harris should solidify an already strong secondary.

San Diego -- While the Chargers have questions -- namely the health of their top two players, linebacker Shawne Merriman and running back LaDainian Tomlinson -- there is still so much talent there it's hard to believe San Diego won't rebound in 2009. Merriman should return which would be a huge lift for a defense that struggled without him last year. Defensive end Larry English, the team's first pick, could give the Chargers the extra pass rusher they needs while guard pick Louis Vasquez adds some much needed offensive line depth. They also picked an extra running back in Gartrell Johnson to give Tomlinson a break and free the versatile Darren Sproles to return kicks and fill in as a change-of-pace back.

Arizona -- Much of this depends on how quarterback Kurt Warner plays. As he has proven in the past, when he is on, he is very good. But when he is banged up or appears to lose interest he can be terrible. The Cardinals rode to the Super Bowl in large part because of his leadership and his still accurate arm. Yet Arizona also rolled through the playoffs because it has some of the best young talent in the league. And the signing of cornerback Bryant McFadden to go along with Dominique Rogers-Cromartie gives the Cardinals an excellent secondary. The Cardinals play in the NFL's weakest division and should again have a free ride to the playoffs. Last year's Super Bowl run should not be discounted as a one-time fluke.

By Les Carpenter  |  April 29, 2009; 3:17 PM ET  | Category:  Arizona Cardinals , New York Giants , Philadelphia Eagles , Pittsburgh Steelers , San Diego Chargers Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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