New Orleans Saints
The Saints have been a bit of a mystery the last two seasons. They show promise and talent, but have fallen well short of proving their worth in the NFL.
Drew Brees 2008 season was special, and New Orleans will be beyond blessed if the quarterback comes even close to matching it in 2009.
The running game has been what has held the Saints back from going far. The blockers have done well in pass defense, but will need to step it up in the rushing attack.
Reggie Bush has done fairly well receiving the ball, but has shown that he is not the cowbell the team needs so far. He is a back who usually goes down on first contact, and has rarely shown why the Saints drafted him so high in the first place.
The key to the season may rest on the shoulders of Pierre Thomas. Thomas has shown glimpses of being special, but has yet been given the duties to display that promise more than a few times. If he gets the Saints 1,000 yards this season, the team will be hard to defeat in their division.
New Orleans has shown they can toss the ball around the field as good as anyone in the league. They did this in 2008 with their top receiver injured for most of it, and their tight end having his own issues.
With Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey at full health, it could open up things even more for Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, and Devery Henderson. Rookie Adrian Arrington will also push for a roster spot on a deep group.
The Saints other weakness has been defense. They took one step in the right direction by acquiring Jonathan Vilma, a tackling machine who mans their MLB slot. This year they added veteran SS Darren Sharper and DE Paul Spicer, along with CB Malcolm Jenkins, their 2009 first round draft pick.
The Saints hope Jenkins can team up with Tracy Porter to give them the CB tandem the franchise has sought most of their existence in the league. If the duo is, then veteran Randall Gay's versatility to play FS comes in handy for quality depth.
The kicking game is also something to pay attention to. Garrett Hartley took over the job in the tenth game of 2008, and the rookie was perfect the rest of the way. If he can come close to that again will help, but it remains to be seen if he will. Rookie Thomas Morstead is expected to win the punting job, though Glenn Pakulak is the incumbent who also was a rookie in 2008 and didn't play until the tenth game of the season.
The Saints still have a few "ifs" going into 2009, though perhaps a few less than the 2008 season. Regardless, it is better to have those "ifs" than to be the "Aints".
Carolina's big off season news has been regarding the future of star DE Julius Peppers. Peppers is a man who grew up and was schooled in North Carolina. Peppers is still on the roster, so the fans can focus on an excellent draft class coming in to 2009.
The Panthers are about winning the battle in the trenches, and they really helped themselves on both sides of the ball. Tony Fiametti is a FB who could supplant long time starter Brad Hoover this year. Whomever gets the call, they will lead block for a potentially explosive threesome at running back.
Carolina already has a dynamic duo in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but they may have stolen a gem in speedster Mike Goodson from the draft. Goodson can develop into a game changing pass catcher and return specialist, if he realizes his potential.
The passing game revolves around WR Steve Smith. If the ultra productive star can get some help, the Panthers get much more dangerous. Dwayne Jarrett has been a huge bust so far, and the team hopes that he or another guy can push 36 year old Muhsin Muhammed for playing time. With the fact they haven't gotten much production from the TE spot, this need intensifies.
The blocking was stout in 2008, and they may have gotten tougher with monstrous G Duke Robinson. He could be the steal of the Panthers draft, and might team up with RT Jeff Otah to give the Panthers a couple of men who make pancakes all day on Sunday.
If Peppers does indeed leave this season, rookie Everette Brown will have to step up faster. Brown is an undersized pass rush specialist who could excel if he has Peppers to bookend him.
The inside defense has been sporadic, but Carolina has Jon Beason at MLB cleaning up the mistakes. The LB unit is not deep, so an injury could be disastrous for the team.
The Panthers did get better at safety in the draft, an area in need, when they selected Sherrod Martin. Martin is a FS type with CB skills, but is very raw. Head Coach John Fox and Defensive Coordinator Ron Meeks will be busy trying to get him, and fellow rookies Brown and DT Corey Irvin ready to contribute right away.
Opponents know Carolina plans to mash the running game down their throats, as well as throw to Steve Smith several times each game. The only shot they have at beating the Panthers is to expose the weaknesses Carolina has on defense and the passing attack. This can be hard to do if Carolina controls the clock, which is their best strategy.
The Falcons shocked the NFL in 2008. Many thought the team would have trouble winning five games, but they ended up winning eleven. It was done with a rookie coach, a rookie quarterback, and a running back being counted on as the primary ball carrier for the first time in his five year career.
The Falcons, liking the potential they saw, then went out and acquired future Hall Of Fame TE Tony Gonzales. Gonzales will not only open up things for WR's like Roddy White, Harry Douglas, and Michael Jenkins, but he will provide QB Matt Ryan with a security blanket better than most young Falcons passers have had in the teams history.
The only offensive questions left are if RB Michael Turner can hold up and come close to last years production, where he virtually carried the team on his back, or if Ryan will succumb to the all too well known sophomore jinx.
Defense was the main concern before 2008, but the Falcons still found a way to win. DE John Abraham had a spectacular season, and Atlanta hopes he and his bookend, Jamaal Anderson, can do even more as a tandem this year. The Falcons DT's scared no one last year, so they went out and drafted two this year. Peria Jerry was the teams first selection, and he will be given every chance to start day one.
Linebacker is a big concern. Keith Brooking has left town, so Atlanta doesn't have much after Curtis Lofton and veteran Mike Peterson. Lofton was solid in his rookie campaign last year, but Peterson is an unknown. He had a falling out in Jacksonville last season, and his production noticeably slipped. He is also moving from MLB to SLB for the 2009 year, a position he hasn't played since 2002 for the Indianapolis Colts. He also hasn't played a full season since 2005.
Perhaps Atlanta will be watching the waiver wire, since they have yet to show interest in free agents like Derrick Brooks. Brooks would be a good fit in Atlanta, and provide leadership, but the team might not be able to afford him after sinking so much cash into Ryan's huge salary.
Another area to watch is the extremely young secondary. Starting FS Erik Coleman is the graybeard of the group at 27 years old, and entering his sixth season. The next oldest player, CB Von Hutchins, is entering his fifth year. Mistakes are a big possibility for the unit.
Most doubt the Falcons will even come close to their 2008 success, but that is the way they want it. Doubt them, overlook them, and disregard them. Just like 2008. It worked fine for them then, so who is to say it wouldn't again?
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Tampa Bay went 9-7 last year, which would have been good enough to win the NFC West. It was only good enough to finish third in their division, so it cost Jon Gruden his job as coach.
Now Tampa Bay is moving away from all past philosophies. No longer will they employ a West Coast offense, nor the Tampa - 2 defense. They will try to line up man to man and beat down their opponents.
One reason is because the Buccaneers have a young and excellent offensive line. No starter is older than 27, and they also have good depth. There is a question if starting LG Arron Sears is suffering from post-concussion effects, and if he will be ready to play any time soon.
Though the team has yet to decide on whether Brian Leftwich or Luke McCown start at quarterback, or if 2009 first round draft pick Josh Freeman is in the mix yet. Regardless, the QB will have a few weapons to work with.
Tampa picked up TE Kellen Winslow Jr. and RB Derrick Ward, as well as raised the salaries of Winslow and WR Antonio Bryant. This spending spree was big news, because the Buccaneers are dead last in salary spending the past five years. In contrast, the Dallas Cowboys have spent $117.8 million more than them over this time.
Winslow and Jerramy Stevens should give the Bucs a nice duo TE threat, especially in the jumbo packages they plan to run. Winslow's ability to line up in the slot will give other teams issues. That, with a running game led by Earnest Graham and Ward, spells all the makings for a good ball control offense.
The defense is the question. They will be moving 2008 starting SS Jermaine Phillips into the WLB slot, as well as hoping 34 year old CB Ronde Barber can cover man to man. There isn't much depth in the secondary, and the pair of safeties lined up to start are guys who take bad angles and get burned often. If Barber struggles, and the safeties don't get over in time, the possibility of big pass plays by opponents are even more likely.
The defensive line is in transition as well. They did draft two big men in DT Roy Miller and DE Kyle Moore this year, but they will need an improved pass rush from Gaines Adams and Stylez G. White. The pair combined for just 11.5 sacks last year. Now that the team has moved away from ex-defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's gap penetration schemes to lining up head to head on opponents, this pass rush need becomes even more magnified.
Another battle worth watching is the kicker position. Matt Bryant is coming off a career year, which he dedicated to his three month old son who had passed away a few weeks into the season. He scored a career best 131 points, and kicked three game winning field goals. He will have to battle for his job against Mike Nugent, a four year veteran who was a second round draft pick of the New York Jets in 2005.
The Buccaneers have mostly been decent on defense since they drafted Hall Of Fame DE Lee Roy Selmon in 1976. This will be the first season in a long time the Bucs will come in appearing so possibly shaky.
These issues could be hidden if the offense plays up to their potential and controls the clock. If they underachieve, an issue many of the key players they are counting on have done at one time or another in their career, the defense could be exposed early and often.
Tampa Bay goes into 2009 as a bit of an enigma who is capable of winning their division, or ending up in last place. If they struggle, you may see the rookie QB Freeman playing before the Bucs initially had planned to break him in.