Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston aims to get Tampa Bay pointed in the right direction. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)
New Orleans Saints (7-9)

OUTLOOK: The Saints simply must be better on defense than they were last season, when they ranked 29th against the run and 31st overall, and the offense must overcome the offseason trade of TE Jimmy Graham to Seattle. QB Drew Brees was interception-prone but generally remained productive last season amid questioning of his arm strength and accuracy. He could have a star in the making in second-year WR Brandin Cooks. Brees and Coach Sean Payton usually find a way to make the offense work, and improvement on defense could push the Saints back to the top of the NFC South.

IMPACT ADDITION: New Orleans added C Max Unger from the Seahawks in the Graham trade. That was a sign early in the offseason that the Saints regarded upgrading Brees’s offensive line as a priority along with trying to fix the defense.


Percentage of third-and-10 plays ending in a first down, the highest in the NFL.

Atlanta Falcons (6-10)

OUTLOOK: The Falcons went a combined 10-22 the past two seasons after reaching the NFC title game in the 2012 season. That led to Mike Smith’s dismissal as the team’s coach. Enter Dan Quinn, who takes over as head coach after being the architect of the Seahawks’ Super Bowl defenses, and Kyle Shanahan, who was hired as Quinn’s offensive coordinator after his eventful stints with the Redskins and Browns. Shanahan no longer has to design a college-style offense for Robert Griffin III or deal with the Johnny Manziel hype. Now he has a Pro Bowl pocket passer in Matt Ryan and a top-shelf WR in Julio Jones.

IMPACT ADDITION: Atlanta desperately needed pass-rushing help and used the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft on Vic Beasley. His ability to get to QBs could be a big factor in how successful Quinn’s first defense with the Falcons is.


Number of times Paul Worrilow stopped a runner for a loss, the most among inside linebackers.

Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)

OUTLOOK: The season-ending knee injury suffered by WR Kelvin Benjamin during training camp cost the Panthers a major part of their offense and cost the NFL one of the headliners among its star-filled group of second-year wide receivers. This was to be a year in which maybe it would be fair to judge the development of QB Cam Newton. But now there remains room to wonder whether Newton’s receivers and offensive line are good enough to figure that out.

IMPACT ADDITION: Rookie WR Devin Funchess, chosen early in the second round of the draft, must develop quickly if the Panthers are going to have much hope of getting by without Benjamin. He is a big receiver who potentially can do some of the things that Benjamin did.


Percentage of run plays where Luke Kuechly stopped the rusher behind the line of scrimmage, the second best at his position.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14)

OUTLOOK: The Jameis Winston era begins in Tampa, but initial expectations probably should be kept relatively modest. Winston does have reliable WRs in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. But the team around him remains, for the most part, a work in progress and no one should expect Winston to be an instant miracle worker.

IMPACT ADDITION: Rookie Donovan Smith, taken with the second pick of the draft’s second round, steps in as the Buccaneers’ starter at left tackle. He certainly won’t face as much scrutiny as Winston will, and his transition to the NFL isn’t quite as directly integral to the Buccaneers’ success as Winston’s is. But his development could be a key factor in whether Winston ultimately becomes the franchise QB that the organization envisions.


Percentage of passes targeted to wide receivers that were successfully caught in 2014, the third lowest in the league.