In Depth: Scouting the NFC South
A rookie No. 1 pick at quarterback. A coveted veteran addition at running back. A new coaching staff and a defense with a ton of questions.
Few had the Atlanta Falcons as the team to beat in the division going into the 2008 season. But the team surprised the experts by finishing 11-5, one game behind the division-champion Carolina Panthers.
The first paragraph could also be described to use this season's projected cellar-dweller, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nothing goes as scripted in the NFC South, and who know just how things will shake out in 2009?
Falcons boost offense with vet, rely on youth defensively
Additions: TE Tony Gonzalez, DT Peria Jerry, SS Will Moore, OLB Mike Peterson, C Brett Romberg
Subtractions: Michael Boley, OLB Keith Brooking, CB Dominique Foxworth, DT Grady Jackson, SS Lawyer Milloy, WR Laurent Robinson, OLB, OT Todd Weiner
The Falcons gave the Matt Ryan an immediate boost when the club traded for Chiefs Pro-Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez. The veteran fills an immediate need with the Falcons, and will take immediate pressure off of wideout Roddy White, and give Ryan two legitimate No. 1 targets.
Combine that with the resigning of wideout Mike Jenkins, and running back Michael Turner, and their is no shortage of weapons in the Atlanta arsenal.
Seemingly the only potential hiccup is the retirement of tackle Todd Weiner. That means second-year left tackle Sam Baker must stay healthy and protect Ryan's blindside full-time.
Defensively the Falcons look like a work in progress. The front four is boosted by rookie tackle Peria Jerry and the return of tackle Trey Lewis from injury. Combined with end John Abraham and the resigning of Chauncey Davis, the group should be solid.
Outside of middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, the Falcons are undergoing change at linebacker. The club replaced Keith Brooking with Mike Peterson on the weakside, and are giving Stephen Nicholas every chance to win the strongside job from journeyman Coy Wire.
But it is the secondary that has the questions. Second-year safety Thomas McCoud will compete with rookie Will Moore for the strong safety job vacated by Lawyer Milloy (unsigned).
The biggest question is at corner. There will be open competition between second-year corner Chevis Jackson, Brent Grimes and Von Hutchins, who missed the season with a knee injury, to take over for departed Dominique Foxworth at corner.
Panthers remain pedestrian to offseason changes
Additions: DE Everette Brown, CB Sherrod Martin
Subtractions: OG Jeremy Bridges, WR D.J. Hackett, CB Ken Lucas, LB Adam Seward, DT Darwin Walker
The biggest news to the Carolina Panthers offseason: not much.
The Panthers return 21 starters from last year's 12-4 team.
The offense will again revolve around the running game of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and an offensive line returning all five starters.
Jake Delhomme will again work with receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad and tight ends Dante Rosario and Jeff King.
If there is one place the Panthers could improve offensively, it's the offensive line. Right tackle Jeff Otah and center Ryan Kalil wrapped up their first season as starters in 2008, and right guard Kendrick Vincent is returning from a season-ending groin injury.
Starting cornerback Ken Lucas' departure is the only major change to the Panthers' defense.
Lucas will be replaced by nickelback Richard Marshall, and the team is hoping converted college safety Sherrod Martin can take Marshall's spot as the fifth defensive back.
This leaves the Panthers thin in the secondary, and a serious injury anywhere in the secondary could be cause for alarm.
The rest of the Panthers' defense returns intact. Rookie Everette Brown looks to cut into Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson's time at end and boost the pass rush opposite Julius Peppers. The rest of the front seven, highlighted by linebacker Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, returns intact.
Saints season hinges on defensive changes
Additions: TE Dan Campbell, FB/RB Heath Evans, CB Jabari Greer, CB/FS Malcolm Jenkins, C Nick Leckey, S Pierson Prioleau, S Darren Sharper, DE Paul Spicer.
Subtractions: FB Mike Karney, S Kevin Kaesviharn, DT Antwan Lake, RB Deuce McAllister, CB Mike McKenzie, WR David Patten, DT Brian Young
The Saints made every attempt this offseason to improve a secondary that has been a weakness that has plagued the club each season of Sean Payton's tenure as coach.
The biggest move was signing veteran Darren Sharper to add stability to the secondary from the free safety spot.
Also added were former Buffalo cornerback Jabari Greer and rookie No. 1 pick Malcolm Jenkins (who could move to safety) to a cornerback group that already including includes Jason David, Tracy Porter and Randal Gay.
Though Porter and Gay will go to camp as starters, but competition for jobs here figures to be fierce.
The club also moved former cornerback Usama Young to free safety and added veteran Pierson Prioleau and rookie fourth rounder Chip Vaughn to the safety mix.
Going a long way to help the secondary would be if ends Will Smith and Charles Grant would bounce back from disappointing seasons (six sacks combined in 2008). Their improvement would go a long way to aiding second-year tackle Sedrick Ellis, coming off a quiet rookie season (30 tackles, 4 sacks).
Offensively, the Saints passing game remains potent. Drew Brees returns along with receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem, and tight end Jeremy Shockey.
The key will again be developing a run game to compliment Brees. Reggie Bush gets another the shot to prove he can stay healthy be an every down back, or else former free agent Pierre Thomas will again do his best to carry the load.
Bucs undergoing season of transition
Additions: OLB Angelo Crowell, QB Josh Freeman, QB Byron Leftwich, RB Derrick Ward, TE Kellen Winslow
Subtractions: OLB Derrick Brooks, CB Phillip Buchanon, DE Kevin Carter, WR Joey Galloway, QB Jeff Garcia, DT Jovan Haye, WR Ike Hilliard, OLB Cato June, TE Alex Smith
The Bucs are the anthesis of the Panthers: change is in effect.
New coach Raheem Moris takes over a team undergoing a roster makeover. Gone are veterans Garcia, Galloway, Brooks and June. In their place the Bucs look to get younger.
Former backup Luke McCown will keep the seat warm at quarterback for No. 1 pick Josh Freeman, while journeyman Byron Leftwich hopes for his shot. Whoever opens at quarterback play behind a solid offensive line featuring tackle left Donald Penn and guard Davin Joseph that will utilize solid running backs Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward, added from the Giants in free agency.
Wideout Antonio Bryant and tight end Kellen Winslow provide passing game punch, while Jerramy Stevens and Michael Clayton provide are adequate complimentary players.
But the larger question is will the Bucs' record be good enough to keep Freeman on the bench?
Defensively, the Bucs start over under new coordinaotor Jim Bates. Bates prefers larger tackles than the Bucs have used under Monte Kiffin, and will play more man-to-man coverage.
That means the Bucs' D will be more reliant on second-year corner Aqib Talib, and rookie defensive lineman Kyle Moore (end) and Roy Miller (tackle).
The Bucs are also attempting to get bigger at linebacker, and former Bill Angelo Crowell and converted safety Jermaine Phillips get first shot at replacing Brooks and June.