Since its inception, the NFC South has traditionally been the most difficult division to predict. Until the Panthers held off the Falcons last season, the division winner had finished in last place the year prior. There was plenty of turmoil in the off season, and now that the dust has settled, it's just as difficult to predict who will win what.
Since the arrival of Drew Brees and Sean Payton, the team has been defined by a ludicrous offense and a defense that can't hold the opposing team under fifty points. They drafted Malcolm Jenkins out of Ohio State to play safety and brought in Gregg Williams to run the defense. Williams had huge success in Washington in the same capacity, though it's debatable whether or not the Saints have comparable talent to what he had with the Redskins.
If there's room to improve on the offensive side of the ball, it'd be in the running game. Reggie Bush, while capable of an exciting punt return, isn't able to beat NFL linebackers to the sidelines like he could at USC. Pierre Thomas is serviceable, but if they can't establish a legitimate running game, they'll struggle against teams with talented defensive lines.
The Falcons' addition of Tony Gonzalez was intriguing since he can't play defense. However, the Falcons look poised to build on their surprising success in 2008. While not addressing the defense, Tony Gonzalez gives Matt Ryan yet another weapon to beat the Panthers with. If the right side of their offensive line can hold up, and Micheal Turner can avoid injury after his 400+ carry 2008, there's no reason to anticipate any drop off.
The Falcons' defense was mediocre at best in 2008 and lost two of their most reliable starters after the season. Instead of seeking replacements for Keith Brooking and Micheal Boley, GM Thomas Dimitroff decided to draft Peria Jerry to restore some respectability to the defensive line. William Moore was drafted and is anticipated to start right away at safety. The key for the Falcons defense, and most likely their season, lies in the health of John Abraham.
Following a collapse of epic proportions in 2008, the Bucs cleaned house. Gone is the longtime rock of the defense, Derrick Brooks. John Gruden has been replaced by Raheem Morris. Monty Kiffin is watching SEC game tape.
The Bucs made an interesting move in the draft. On the offensive side of the ball, they have a good line, two very talented tight ends, serviceable receivers, and a QB who showed in Pittsburgh he could get the job done. Instead of trying to rebuild their defense and patch the ship for another year, they decided to take the QB of the (distant) future and ignore pressing needs elsewhere.
It's impossible to say how quickly (if ever) Josh Freeman will learn the NFL game. What's certain is that he can't line up on the defensive line. The Bucs' secondary is full of talented players, and Barrett Rudd is one of the better middle linebackers in the league. If they can beat a bush and find some bodies for the defensive line, they might be able to compete.
They should like where they stand now, since low expectations are the best kind to have in the NFC South
Where does that leave the Carolina Panthers?
It puts them, pretty much, exactly where they were at this point last year. There are still question marks surrounding the QB, Julius Peppers is still disgruntled, everyone in the division has improved except them, future draft picks were mortgaged again, and Head Coach John Fox and GM Marty Hurney are still on the hot seat. The Panthers have never had back to back winning seasons. They broke the NFC South worst-to-first trend in 2008. Maybe they can break their own trend in 2009.