NFC South preview
1. New Orleans
The reigning Super Bowl champions have virtually the same roster as last season, including perhaps the best quarterback in the league in Drew Brees. He threw for 4,388 yards and 34 touchdowns with a passer rating of 109.6, and there are no signs he’ll fall off that pace.
Marques Colston again figures to be Brees’s favorite target after his third 1,000-yard season in four years. Devery Henderson is the No. 2 wide receiver on the depth chart, but Robert Meachem is pushing him for playing time.
Pierre Thomas is the featured back after gaining almost 1,100 yards from scrimmage last season. Reggie Bush won’t have a heavy workload, but when he does have the ball, he can go the distance. Though the Saints defense ranked 25th overall, the team has a host of playmakers including safety Darren Sharper, who scored three touchdowns on nine interceptions last season.
The Falcons shocked the NFL two years ago when they went 11-5 and made the playoffs with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. Last season they took a step back, missing the postseason with a 9-7 record, but they finished as one of the hottest teams in the league, winning their final three.
That’s the reason for optimism in Atlanta, where balance is the strength of the offense. In 14 games last season, Ryan passed for 2,916 yards with 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Wide receiver Roddy White had his third consecutive 1,000-yard season. Running back Michael Turner rushed for 871 yards and 10 touchdowns in just 11 games. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, a probable Hall of Famer, had 83 catches.
Atlanta ranked 21st in total defense last season and struggled to generate a consistent pass rush. End John Abraham fell to 5½ sacks after recording 16½ and 10 in his previous two seasons.
The Panthers enter the season with significant question marks at quarterback. Gone is veteran Jake Delhomme, who left for Cleveland after his worst season as a starter. Matt Moore enters as his replacement, although rookie Jimmy Clausen could be the long-term solution.
The best ally for an inexperienced quarterback is a dependable running game, and the Panthers certainly have one of the league’s finest, thanks to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Williams had 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns for his first Pro Bowl selection. Stewart added 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The most notable departure on defense will be end Julius Peppers, who spent the first eight years of his career with the team. He left for Chicago after 81 career sacks and five Pro Bowl appearances. That means linebacker Jon Beason becomes the leader of the defense. He has had three straight seasons with at least 138 tackles.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This is a team in complete repair mode, best indicated by the total of 13 career starts combined among its first- and second-string quarterbacks, Josh Freeman and Josh Johnson. Freeman, who had a thumb injury in the preseason, is the starter for the moment.
There isn’t much help at other positions. The primary running back will be Carnell Williams, who is working his way back to full health after a second patella tendon injury last season.
The Buccaneers’ most athletic player on offense may be tight end Kellen Winslow, who has been plagued by injuries since Cleveland made him the sixth overall pick in 2004.
Cornerback Ronde Barber is the lone holdover on defense from the Super Bowl championship team of 2002. His supporting cast includes middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who had 142 tackles last season, and rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 overall pick.