Welcome to the first edition of the semi-regular, offseason NFC South Power Rankings.
This is the toughest of the rankings, as it's going to include some leftovers from last season, take into account what each team did in free agency and the draft, look into the future with regard to what those changes mean and focus on the first weeks of organized team activities (OTAs).
Some initial thoughts:
1. The top of this division and the bottom are tightly bunched. The Falcons and the Saints could probably be flip-flopped, as could the Panthers and Buccaneers, but the two duos are worlds apart. It's going to be a while before Carolina or Tampa Bay threatens to jump over New Orleans or Atlanta.
2. Questions about the direction of these teams rule these rankings. On paper, New Orleans is slightly better that Atlanta, and Tampa Bay might be a bit better than Carolina. However, the absence of head coach Sean Payton in New Orleans and questions about how new head coach Greg Schiano's overhaul will take in Tampa forced these two teams down in the rankings.
|NFC South Power Rankings|
|1||Atlanta Falcons||The addition of corner Asante Samuel might be the non-draft transaction on defense in the Thomas Dimitroff/Mike Smith era. Samuel will boost Atlanta's pass defense tremendously and help the Falcons keep points off the board (Atlanta ranked 18th last year, allowing 21.9 points per game). But still, the addition of two new coordinators—Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan—will be the biggest reasons why Atlanta succeeds in 2012 where teams in the past four years couldn't.
|2||New Orleans Saints||Hamstrung by missing draft choices this year due to trades and NFL sanctions, the Saints had a lackluster draft. But the team hired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and brought in some heavy-hitting linebackers via free agency to bolster a unit that really needed help. If Spagnuolo's new system can help New Orleans get pressure on opposing quarterbacks—an area of weakness for the Saints—the Saints could still shine in the wake of player and coach suspensions. It'd be nice to get Drew Brees back so there would be very few questions about the New Orleans offense.
|3||Carolina Panthers||One of the biggest factors that should impress fans of the Panthers—because it's sure impressed the coaching staff—is the fact that second-year quarterback Cam Newton seems to have done a lot of growing up in the offseason. He's no longer going to mope around when things don't go his way, and he's going to be more of a leader on and off the field. If he can improve on his rookie campaign, the sky is the limit. It's just likely not going to happen this season.
|4||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Instead of going with a cliche like "the inmates were running the asylum," it's probably best to keep the feelings about Tampa Bay's 2011 season somewhere closer to the fact that there was a lack of leadership from the top down. The season came to a crashing halt, and there were signs of players and coaches "cashing it in" toward the end of the year. New head coach Greg Schiano is totally revamping the Buccaneer way of life and grabbing complete control of every aspect of the direction of this team. Is that, plus an amazingly good 2012 draft, enough to get this ship on course?