Strengths – This is a great offense that came into its own last year once they settled their QB and coaching situation. Matt Ryan and Roddy White formed an elite QB-WR combination. Michael Jenkins finally showed that he can be a decent #2 WR. Michael Turner played like an MVP while his backup, Jerious Norwood became one of the most underrated RB2’s in the league. The young offensive line gelled under Todd McClure’s leadership. Add to all of that, the arrival of Tony Gonzalez, and this offense has all the pieces to be a top 3 offense. Gonzalez should be a huge help to Matt Ryan avoiding a sophomore slump.
Weaknesses – Most, if not all, of the questions reside on the defensive side of the ball. This team boasts some of the weakest CBs in the league. Chris Houston has to step up and fulfill his vast potential. He can’t play like he has Deion’s coverage reputation, without building that reputation first. The defensive line was abused last year and they chose to address that with a sub-300 pound DT. Losing Michael Boley was a blow which was not fully addressed with the Mike Peterson signing.
Opportunities – Trey Lewis could end up with a lot of playing time as he is the only DT on the club who is worthy of getting playing time and also has some true run-stopping girth. He seemed to take a slight step backwards last season, but if he can return to the promise he showed as a rookie, he could be a lifeline for the D-Line.
Threats – Michael Turner cannot expect to last long if he carries as much of a load as he did last season. A large chunk of his running style is the kind that shortens a RBs career. Outside of Jonathan Abraham, the front seven lacks the speed on the outside positions to contain a spread offense. At the same time it has the lack of size in the middle to stop the power running games. With the loss of Harry Douglas as the WR3, will the Falcons get production out of newly signed Robert Ferguson and Marty Booker.
Passing/Receiving the Torch – Eventually, this season, John Abraham will pass his aura as the defensive leader to Curtis Lofton, as long as Lofton can keep from having lapses. This may be early, but it's as close a thing to a potential torch-passing they have.
Position Battle - CB: Chris Houston vs. Chevis Jackson. Houston should win it hands down, but Jackson will make a push. Brent Grimes might be in the mix too.
Rookie Contributor – DT Peria Jerry will probably start from Day 1. He needs to prove he can take a beating. He runs about 299 pounds and will play alongside Jonathan Babineaux who is even lighter. Before William Moore got hurt (which might take him out of the early part of the season), he had a chance to push Coleman and DeCoud.
Strengths – DeAngelo Williams was a pleasant surprise last season. He looked dominant at times. Teaming him up in a “Lightening/Thunder” combination with Jonathan Stewart is a lethal combo for any defense. Stewart had flashes last season showing he could be a starting back. Teams with RB situations like this tend to thrive late into the year. To give them a boost, the Panthers have a strong O-Line made for run blocking. The group is made up of a nice mix of veterans and youngsters. LT Jordan Gross will lead the way again, with C Ryan Kalil and RT Jeff Otah ready to take a step up the ladder this year.
Weaknesses – The Defensive line was already lacking a decent bookend for Julius Peppers, but received the next biggest blow to losing Peppers for the year. They lost Ma’ake Kemoeatu to an achilles tear. Kemoeatu was an unsung cog of the line last year, tying up extra blockers. Now the team must turn to Nick Hayden and rookie Corey Irvin to fill in. Adding a veteran DT could be a solution.
Opportunities – Damione Lewis has a shot to prove why he was worthy of a 1st round pick years ago by the Rams. He may have a long year ahead of him, but the coaches will know his true value in the absence of Kemoeatu. Charles Godfrey is in his second year as the starting FS, and can take this opportunity to take the reigns on the DB calls. As a former CB, his coverage skills can provide the extra support for when Chris Harris wants to roam near the line.
Threats – Jake Delhomme’s targets outside of Steve Smith are not impressive. If Delhomme falters early, due to a lack of good targets, will the fans start chanting Josh McCown’s name? Losing Geoff Hangartner and Frank Omiyale to free agency leaves the team with very little depth on the offensive line. One injury can put that line in a bad place. Jon Beason could be the biggest loser in the Kemoeatu injury. He may have to deal with blockers that were previously tied up by the big guy.
Passing/Receiving the Torch – Not many changing hands here. Closest would be Richard Marshall finally stepping into a full time starting role, now that Ken Lucas is elsewhere. This was somewhat in effect last year, but will be interesting to see if he takes a step up or down this year.
Position Battle – DE: Tyler Brayton vs. Charles Johnson (maybe vs. Everette Brown). The left DE spot should be wide open for these two to compete. Everette Brown is entrenched behind Peppers, but if he’s the best pass rusher of the three, he needs to be out there on passing downs opposite Peppers.
Rookie Contributor – DT Corey Irvin looks to be part of the DT rotation now. With the lack of O-Line depth, Duke Robinson could see some snaps. However, there is a Dark Horse. RB Mike Goodson has the coaches intrigued, and could get a few carries. You can’t keep that kind of talent off the field.
New Orleans Saints
Strengths – This was one of the best offenses in the league last season. There is no reason to think it won’t continue that this season. Drew Brees could have the MVP award in his sights. He proved last year that he has no problem posting huge numbers while spreading the ball around. The offensive line lacks big names, but plays well together and keeps Brees off his back.
Weaknesses – The defense has been a weakness of this team for years. They are almost like a 6-pack. They have all the pieces in place, but lack that little plastic thingy that holds it all together. There is very little depth in the front seven. This came to light with last year’s absences. They can only really afford one injury at DE.
Opportunities – Could the passing attack get even better with a healthy Colston around all year? Sedrick Ellis had some flashes of brilliance last season. Could he become the stud DT that this defense has desperately been missing? Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams likes to bring the rush from multiple areas of the defense. The current set of DBs possess some physical attributes that makes them great candidates to rush off the edge. Will they put this defense over the top?
Threats – Will Reggie Bush’s knees become an issue? Pierre Thomas is the starting RB, and an underrated one at that. But, Bush is the home-run threat that keeps defenses honest, allowing the offense to open up.
Passing/Receiving the Torch – Darren Sharper, from VACANT, as the QB of the defense. Sharper could prove to be one of those missing cogs that this defense needs to put it over the top. If Sharper doesn’t show his age, this is within reach. If he does, look for Malcolm Jenkins to proceed to take the torch from Sharper.
Position Battle – CB: Randall Gay vs. Jason David vs. Jabari Greer. Gay should have the spot locked up, but Gregg Williams apparently really likes Jabari Greer. Jason David is in the mix, but still has a lot to prove, as he never really fulfilled the potential the team thought it was bringing in.
Rookie Contributor – Malcolm Jenkins and SS Chip Vaughn are the rookies with any chance of getting playing time. They may end up only getting spot duty and special teams work, but both are an injury (or poor play) away from starting.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Strengths – Can someone tell me where this offensive line came from? LT Donald Penn came out of nowhere and proved to be a good pass blocker. RT Jeremy Trueblood plays with heart (and sometimes too much, leading to on field fights). RG Davin Joseph is a stud. Jeff Faine has proven to be a great addition. At LG, Arron Sears’s career may be in jeopardy, but Jeremy Zuttah deserved a shot at a starting job anyway. The team might have a bunch of no-namers now, but the talent of this defense is still at LB. The LB corps run deep and boast a lot of speed. They will be led by Angelo Crowell and Barrett Ruud.
Weaknesses – This D-Line does not resemble a Monte Kiffin D-Line. The talent is lacking in a big way, especially at defensive end. Outside of Antonio Bryant, the WRs need to step it up, because they haven’t proven anything, and need to give the rookie QB some nice targets. Dexter Jackson has been talked up this off-season, but that’s about it. Can Michael Clayton ever regain rookie form?
Opportunities – Aqib Talib looked great on the field last season (ahem…ON the field). He could put himself into position to take on #1 WRs this year. Tanard Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli boast a lot of potential going into their third years with the club. We could see them manning the middle of the D-Backfield for years.
Threats – Are the RBs as good as their hype? Ward looked great in New York, but was playing for a contract. He also doesn’t have Jacobs, and almost more importantly, Bradshaw to team up with. Earnest Graham is decent, and had a good year two years ago, but which Graham will show up this year. Cadillac Williams is a wild card, but cannot be counted on. Kellen Winslow could be a great addition for Josh Freeman to use as a safety valve, or he can continue to be a head-case. Apparently, one Bucs coach has made a comment about the latter.
Passing/Receiving the Torch – Weak-side LB Jermaine Phillips moves over from safety to take the torch from departed defensive leader Derrick Brooks. This is the playmaking position of the defense. The front-seven is schemed in a way to open this position up to make a lot of plays.
Position Battle – QB: Josh Freeman vs. Byron Leftwich. The strong-armed (almost Flacco-ish) rookie versus Roethlisburger’s capable fill-in.
Rookie Contributor – Obviously Freeman, if he lands the starting gig. However, don’t rule out DT Roy Miller and DE Kyle Moore. There will be plenty off opportunity for playing time on that D-Line.