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Carolina Panthers

John Fox has reached the rarified atmosphere no NFL coach seeks: the final year of his contract. It’s difficult enough reaching players when you have long-term security. Try it when you are a lame duck.

Fox also is without DE Julius Peppers, now in Chicago, and longtime QB Jake Delhomme, now in Cleveland, as he makes a final stand in Charlotte. Key linebacker Thomas Davis is likely sidelined for the season, and there are concerns about keeping healthy such important performers as WR Steve Smith, RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and LB Jon Beason.

Both Stewart and Williams ran for more than 1,100 yards in 2009 and Fox needs similar numbers to get his team near last year’s 8-8 record.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

At least Raheem Morris won’t be firing both of his coordinators in his second season at the helm. Unless, that is, he cans himself _ Morris is coordinating the defense for Tampa Bay, and we’re not talking about a body-rocking unit anymore.

Tampa allowed 400 points under the league’s youngest coach, then drafted defensive players in the first three rounds: Oklahoma tackle Gerald McCoy, taken third overall; UCLA tackle Brian Price in the second round; and Vanderbilt cornerback Myron Lewis in the third. All three could find time as starters.

The offense is shaky, even though there are promising players on the line. Second-year QB Josh Freeman could have a long year because the skill positions are so questionable. The Bucs are pretty deep at running back, though, and Carnell Williams has a shot at reviving the old Cadillac after injuries slowed him.



San Francisco 49ers

Don’t look for a return to the halcyon days of Montana, Lott, Rice, Young and Walsh. If these Niners have any Hall of Fame talent, it has yet to develop, with the possible exception of All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis.

Mike Singletary’s defense has some solid players surrounding Willis, especially Justin Smith at end and tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Only Dallas allowed fewer points in the NFC last year.

The offense is in the hands of Alex Smith, who has shown more Steve Bono than Steve Young thus far. But he can finally be comfortable as an entrenched starter, and in Frank Gore he has a workhorse running back. Wideouts Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn Jr. add some spark, if not consistency, and TE Vernon Davis is a threat. If Brian Westbrook is over his series of concussions, he’s a solid addition to the attack.

Arizona Cardinals

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