BY BRIAN DELUCIA
Special to FOXSports.com
Jun. 25, 2003 7:37 p.m.
The following five NFC players must have big seasons to elevate their respective teams to the next level in 2003.
Marshall Faulk, Rams RB:
The Rams offense begins and ends with the speed and versatility of Marshall Faulk. The matchup problems he creates really made their offense special for a few seasons. He just opens up the passing game for everyone. Now Faulk is coming off an injury-plagued year as the Rams struggled last season. The biggest question regarding Faulk is whether that was a spell of tough luck or the beginning of his decline at age 30.
Fred Smoot, Redskins CB:
If there is one player on the hot spot, it’s Fred Smoot. Smoot draws a lot of criticism for his overconfidence and antics, but must back it up. He’s not going to mix with all coaches, as was the case last year with defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. Smoot must also get over back problems that nagged him last season. Smoot has trouble against bigger receivers, but is instinctive enough to be in a position to make plays when focused. That’s what the Redskins need from their secondary … more turnovers and consistency.
Joe Johnson, Packers DE:
Although he’s not a superstar, when at his best Joe Johnson is one of the more complete perimeter players in the NFL. Johnson can play the run very well and generates a solid pass rush when healthy. But injuries were the problem last season and the Packers received next to nothing from Johnson. Now he has legal problems hovering over his shoulder from earlier this spring. The biggest question the Packers have is whether they’ll get enough production from their front seven. That’s why Johnson is so critical for the Packers. But as he hits age 31 this season, doubts certainly linger whether he can return to form.
Dale Carter, Saints CB:
I still view the Saints secondary as suspect. Dale Carter is one reason for that view. Carter is the one corner the Saints have that possesses the tools to shut down opponents and create turnovers. But Carter will turn 34 during the season and too much time has been interrupted by off-field problems since his days in Kansas City. His grades have been ordinary during his comeback stints and it could be hard to recapture that magic at this point of his career.
Ray Buchanan, Falcons CB:
While being nagged by injuries in 2002, Ray Buchanan began showing his age. Buchanan isn’t very big, but he’s the closest thing the Falcons have to a shutdown cover guy. Buchanan is poised to prove he still has a lot left in the tank and the Falcons need more consistency from their secondary. Atlanta will have more depth at cornerback this season, but could still be faced with limitations against top passing teams.