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At first glance, it would probably be safe for one to assume that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a ways to go before they recapture the NFC South Division crown. After all, the Bucs finished last season in last place in the NFC South division with a 5-11 record.

But after taking a closer look at the offseason transactions and distractions for the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, things appear to be looking up for the Buccaneers, who arguably had the best offseason of any NFC South team, and here’s why you can make a case for such a notion.

The Atlanta Falcons, who finished last year with a 10-6 regular season record and won the NFC South division title en route to making an appearance in the NFC Championship Game, haven’t been too active in free agency, with the exception of the signing of linebackers Edgerton Hartwell and Ike Reese to multi-year deals. The reason is because the Falcons have recently spent a significant amount of money to give contract extensions to quarterback Michael Vick, tight end Alge Crumpler and halfback Warrick Dunn over the past two seasons. However, the Falcons did add some good players through the draft, including wide receiver Roddy White, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and linebacker Michael Boley.

Atlanta will be the early favorites to win the NFC South division again this year, but it has some big question marks going into the 2005 season. Will the third time be the charm for Atlanta’s receivers? The Falcons have spent three first-round picks on wide receivers over the past three seasons, and the first two – Peerless Price and Michael Jenkins – haven’t panned out as of yet. The Falcons are hoping White will be a different story, and if he is, Vick, who has completed just 53.6 percent of his career passes and is still trying to get a grasp on the West Coast offense, will have to find a way to get him the ball on a consistent basis. Atlanta’s offense needs a receiver to step up this season in order to free up Crumpler. Otherwise, they’ll remain one dimensional on offense.

The other distraction the Falcons will have to deal with is the Vick, a.k.a., Ron Mexico, situation. Vick is being sued for allegedly giving a female companion a sexually transmitted disease that he knowingly had and had been treated for under the alias “Ron Mexico.” Until that court case is resolved, Vick and his teammates will likely be answering questions regarding the matter, which could become a serious distraction since Vick is the leader of the team.

It could get even worse than Vick just having to answer reporter’s questions until the civil suit reaches a conclusion. Ribbing by teammates could disrupt the locker room chemistry, and trash-talking could be taken to a whole new level by Vick’s opponents each Sunday, which could serve as a distraction.

The Carolina Panthers just can’t seem to catch a break. This franchise has endured alchohol abuse from its star quarterback Kerry Collins, who was a former first-round pick, the murder conviction of receiver Rae Carruth, another former first-round pick, and the shooting death of running back Fred Lane in recent years. Unfortunately, the tragedy continues in 2005.

Sadly, linebackers coach Sam Mills lost his two-year battle with intestinal cancer last month, and linebacker Mark Fields’ Hodgkins’ Disease has returned after almost a two-year remission. That unfortunate circumstance will render Fields unavailable for the 2005 season. In the meantime, the Panthers are dealing with the steroid allegations against several of their current and former players, and that situation doesn’t look like it will be resolved anytime soon.

However, the Panthers, under the leadership of head coach John Fox, have been mentally tough. In 2003, Carolina used Mills and Fields’ situations as motivation, and that helped them get to the Super Bowl that same year. Last year, Carolina started the season off 1-7, but despite losing several star players to injuries, Fox’s players refused to throw in the towel. The Panthers went 6-2 down the stretch and nearly made the playoffs before finishing the season with a 7-9 record.

Carolina has most of their injured players, including receiver Steve Smith and running back DeShaun Foster, back, but the on-field loss of Fields and receiver Mushin Muhammad, who signed with Chicago during the offseason, could hurt. The Panthers are also concerned that Stephen Davis may not be able to return from last year’s season-ending knee injury.

However, what could help is Carolina’s draft, which landed the likes of safety Thomas Davis, running back Eric Shelton, guard Evan Mathis and defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison on the first day. Shelton, who is a great fit for Carolina’s offense, will be counted on immediately to fill in for Davis, which could be asking a lot of a first-year player.

It should be interesting to see how Carolina handles yet another heavy dose of heart-wrenching (the loss of Mills and Fields) and mindless (alleged steroid abuse) distractions.

The New Orleans Saints uncharacteristically finished the regular season strong last year, winning their final four games to finish the season with a 8-8 record. Typically, the Saints implode down the stretch, but can they build on last year’s big finish?

The Saints managed to hold onto defensive end Darren Howard for one more season while adding cornerback Jason Craft, former Bucs safety Dwight Smith and tackle Jermane Mayberry through free agency. The team also signed receiver Joe Horn and safety Jay Bellamy to multi-year extensions.

Despite having the 32nd-ranked defense last season, the Saints went with offense in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft by trading up to select right tackle Jammal Brown. The Saints also added talent through draft by landing safety Josh Bullocks. However, their offense recently took a bit of a hit when fourth-round pick receiver Chase Lyman suffered a torn ACL, which sidelined him for the entire year. The 6-foot-4 Lyman was expected to give the Saints size and a physical presence on the perimeter this year.

Those additions could, however, be overshadowed by the uncertainty surrounding the Saints’ future in New Orleans. According to ESPN, New Orleans owner Tom Benson is seriously considering moving the Saints to San Antonio, Albuquerque or Los Angeles due to a unresolved issue he has with his team’s current stadium lease.

Both head coach Jim Haslett and quarterback Aaron Brooks, whom many believe lacks consistency and leadership, are believed to be on thin ice in New Orleans despite the Saints’ strong finish last season. The drafting of quarterback Adrian McPherson has some believing the Saints could have a quarterback controversy on their hands this year, especially if Brooks struggles early.

If history tells us anything, the pattern suggests that the Saints should win the NFC South Division this season since Tampa Bay, Carolina and Atlanta have won it, and in that order, over the past three seasons. However, there’s no such thing as a pattern when it comes to the New Orleans Saints. They’re about as predictable as this weekend’s winning lotto numbers.

That brings us to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have put together back-to-back losing seasons and have won just 12 of 32 regular season games since winning Super Bowl XXXVII.

To make matters worse, the Bucs entered the offseason with one of the league’s worst salary cap situations. That predicament forced the team to part ways with several players, including Smith, quarterback Brad Johnson, nose tackle Chartric Darby, guard Cosey Coleman, receiver Joe Jurevicius, linebacker Ian Gold and cornerback Mario Edwards.

But releasing those players allowed the Bucs to retain the likes of quarterback Brian Griese, defensive end Greg Spires, receiver Joey Galloway and safety Dexter Jackson. Those moves also freed up the money necessary to sign tight end Anthony Becht, cornerback Juran Bolden, receiver Ike Hilliard, nose tackle Chris Hovan and kicker Matt Bryant in free agency, and to general manager Bruce Allen’s credit, those players were signed for very favorable prices.

In addition to those moves, the Bucs added young talent through the draft by selecting several players who have a real chance to make the team or even start this season, including halfback Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, linebacker Barrett Ruud, tight end Alex Smith, offensive linemen Chris Colmer and Dan Buenning, safety Donte Nicholson and receivers Larry Brackins, Paris Warren and J.R. Russell. The Bucs even picked up another quarterback, Luke McCown, to compete with Chris Simms by trading a sixth-round pick away to Cleveland.

The fact that there haven’t been any real distractions this offseason should bode well for the Bucs. Sure, there’s the Todd Steussie steroid allegation, but it hasn’t been a distraction at all. In fact, most people just assumed that Steussie would not be part of the Bucs’ post-June 1 plans anyway, and even though he’s still on the team, Steussie’s situation pales in comparison to some of the distractions the Bucs were forced to deal with last year, including Ellis Wyms’ Easter morning arrest, Jurevicius’ back injury at mini-camp and receiver Keenan McCardell’s holdout.

Tampa Bay has quietly put together a very solid and distraction-free offseason thus far, and it desperately needed it after all that has happened over the past two seasons. Sure, the Bucs will be fielding a relatively young, and in some cases, inexperienced team, but after taking a closer look at Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans, Tampa Bay has certainly built a case for having the best offseason of any NFC South team thus far.


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