Offense: Matt Ryan was exceptional in his rookie season, taking home R.O.Y. honors, as well as leading the Falcons to the playoffs. Expectations are high for this year, and the Falcons added future hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez to make the offense even more explosive. Lost in all of the hoopla surrounding Ryan was how well the offensive line came together, and the play of running backs, Michael Turner, and Jerious Norwood. Turner carried the ball more than any other running back in the league, and led the league in yards after contact. Norwood is more of a scat back, and is great in the open field. Wide receiver Roddy White had a breakout season, and was rewarded with an invite to the Pro Bowl, not to mention, a fat new contract. He is one of the starters along with Michael Jenkins, who showed great hands and had a knack for making big grabs on third down.
Defense: If the Falcons are going to make a run at winning the division, their defense needs to come up with some big stops. Upfront, the Falcons are very good, but the secondary is very young and has a penchant for giving up big plays. John Abraham is going to need to stay healthy and produce, because the Falcons were winless in games in which he did not record a sack. The defensive tackles, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry, are undersized, but very talented, while Jamaal Anderson is going to have to prove that he is not a first round bust. At linebacker, Curtis Lofton started from day one as a rookie last season in the middle, and Mike Peterson brings experience and leadership. As mentioned earlier, the secondary is very young and it will have to mature quickly to avoid getting picked on by the better offenses in the league.
Offense: The Panthers were one of the best rushing teams in the entire league last season, and I believe they will be sticking to their run-first philosophy this year as well. DeAngelo Williams burst onto the scene in a big way, leading the league in rushing TDs, but still he got snubbed from the Pro Bowl. Jonathan Stewart showed a ton of promise as a rookie last season, rushing for 10 TDs of his own in limited duty. Jake Delhomme is back for another season and must shake off his horrendous playoff performance against the Cardinals if the Panthers are to make any noise in the division this year. Steve Smith is his main target and is a player who year in, and year out, puts up great numbers. Muhsin Muhammad is the other starter, and he quietly had a very nice season even at his advanced age. The offensive line is built to run the ball, and has a nice pair of bookend tackles in Jeff Otah and Jordan Gross.
Defense: The Panthers found themselves a superstar in middle linebacker, Jon Beason. He has quickly established himself as the leader of the defense, although it looks like he may not be healthy in time for the season opener. Julius Peppers returns to his position at right defensive end after the Panthers refused to grant him his request to be traded in the offseason. He should be motivated to put himself in line for a big pay day next summer. Rookie defensive end, Everette Brown, is a player to keep an eye on, as he shined in the preseason and should get on the field as a pass rushing specialist this year. The secondary is solid with corners, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall, as well as Chris Harris and Charles Godfrey manning the safety spots.
New Orleans Saints:
Offense: Drew Brees came very close to breaking Dan Marino’s single season passing yards record, and that was without number one wide receiver, Marques Colston, for an extended period of time. This year the offense should be just as explosive, if not more, as Colston comes back fully healed, while Jeremy Shockey had a full training camp, and preseason to build chemistry with Brees. At running back, the Saints said goodbye to long time veteran Deuce McAllister, and will go with the trio of Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, and Mike Bell. Thomas has shown he can produce when given the opportunity in previous starts, while Bush needs to keep himself healthy for a full season. Bell is a former Bronco, and has run wild in the preseason, which should earn him some touches when it really matters. Brees loves to spread the ball around, which means Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, and Robert Meachem should all get their opportunities. The offensive line is outstanding allowing very few sacks to opposing defenses last season.
Defense: The offense is good enough to win games, but if this team is to go anywhere, the defense will have to come up with stops. The Saints have invested a ton of money and draft picks on this side of the ball, and they are hoping that this is the year their investment pays off. Defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith were for the most part a disappointment after both were given big contracts. They will be key cogs in helping the defense get better, along with tackle Sedrick Ellis, who is a disruptive force on the inside. Jonathan Vilma played at an all-pro level a season ago, and continues to prove that he can be a star in the 4-3 scheme. Former Viking/Packer Darren Sharper brings veteran experience to the secondary, while youngsters Tracy Porter and this year’s first round pick, Malcolm Jenkins, will look to push starters Randall Gay and Jabari Greer for playing time at corner.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Offense: Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski was another preseason casualty, as he apparently ruffled too many feathers in the locker room. Byron Leftwich will be the Bucs starting QB, as he won the preseason battle, but look for rookie Josh Freeman to be thrown into the mix later on in the season to get some experience. Everyone seems to be down on the Bucs this year, but they could be competitive this year if they stick to running the ball and controlling the clock. The line is young, but very good, and it did a great job protecting Jeff Garcia last season. The Bucs are deep at running back with Earnest Graham, Derrick Ward, and Cadillac Williams all being capable starters, not to mention B.J. Askew is a running and receiving threat at fullback. The receiving corps is serviceable, but you don’t know what you’re getting in Antonio Bryant, or if Kellen Winslow can stay healthy.
Defense: The Bucs defense collapsed last year after Monte Kiffen announced he would be joining his son at the University of Tennessee for the following season. It will be interesting to see if that was an isolated incident, or the start of a deeper rooted problem. Head coach Raheem Morris is a defensive guy, and I believe his energy and enthusiasm will rub off on this unit. Defensive end Gaines Adams must produce this season, otherwise people will start labeling him a first round bust. Meanwhile, youngsters Stylez G. White and Roy Miller have been impressive on the defensive line in the preseason. Barrett Ruud is the defensive leader at middle linebacker, leading the team in tackles few seasons. Cornerback Ronde Barber is showing no signs of slowing down, while Aqib Talib was impressive last season, earning a starting spot as a rookie. Jermaine Phillips will move from linebacker to safety for the first four games while Tanard Jackson serves a suspension.