Lovie Smith returns to the NFL after a year off, charged with restoring the Tampa Bay team a level of respectability that they haven’t seen in some time.
Mike Glennon performed fairly well as a rookie thrown into a tough situation last year, but he’ll begin the year on the bench in favor of veteran Josh McCown. McCown played the best football of his career last season in relief of Jay Cutler, and it earned him the opportunity to be a starter elsewhere in the league.
McCown enters a pretty interesting situation with the Bucs. He’s got some pretty good talent around him at the skill positions, with Vincent Jackson and top draft pick Mike Evans. Jackson is a fine playmaker who had over 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns while acting as the team’s only true threat last year. Evans was one of the most highly regarded prospects in the draft, and his size and skill could serve as a tremendous compliment to Jackson.
Running back Doug Martin missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, but is recovered and will be expected to serve as the team’s workhorse. The addition of former New England guard Logan Mankins along with the healthy return of Carl Nicks should give the Tampa Bay offensive line a boost, and help create more holes for Martin to attack.
Lovie Smith’s biggest impact will likely be felt on the defensive side of the ball, and the Bucs do have some nice young talent to work with.
Gerald McCoy led the team with 9.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position, and the team went out and got him some help in free agency, signing end Michael Johnson from the Bengals and tackle Clinton McDonald from the Seahawks.
Linebacker Lavonte David is another very promising young player that is coming off of a dominate season. He led the team with 144 tackles, and is always around the football.
The secondary is the weak link in this unit. Mark Barron has yet to show that he was worthy of being a first-round pick in 2012, while second-year man Jonathan Banks needs to improve from a rough rookie season. Dashon Goldson is the one steady veteran in the defensive backfield since Darrelle Revis was let go during the off-season.
Lovie Smith’s arrival should bring some stability to this team, but they need some more time to develop. Even if Josh McCown performs well, he’s likely nothing more than a stopgap at age 35, and while the team has some really nice defensive players in place, its not enough to help them emerge in this tough division.
Projected Finish: 6-10, 4th Place
2013 was a complete disaster for the Falcons, who completely fell from grace with a 4-12 season.
The good news is that quarterback Matt Ryan was not one of the things that went horribly wrong a year ago. Ryan spent the year under siege with a terrible offensive line and a depleted group of receivers, but still threw for over 4,500 yards with 26 touchdowns.
Ryan’s offensive line hasn’t improved much (and they’ve already lost tackle Sam Baker to a leg injury), but his receivers should be healthy at the very least. Julio Jones is back after suffering a broken foot, and his presence alone makes that Atlanta attack much more potent. Roddy White is still around, but he’s got a great deal of wear and tear on his body. Injuries really limited his effectiveness, and its hard to count on him being the same 1,000 yard threat he was in the past.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez has finally retired, leaving Ryan without his most reliable target.
The Falcons’ running back situation also isn’t pretty. Steven Jackson gained just 543 yards in 12 games, and he’s clearly near the end of his career (if he hasn’t already fallen to that point). Atlanta’s only move to address this position in the off-season was spending a fourth-round pick on Devonta Freeman.
The Atlanta defense is also a mess.
Their best pass rusher is the aging Osi Umenyiora, who registered 7.5 sacks to lead the team in a part-time role.
Linebacker Paul Worrilow was one of the only bright spots for this unit, making it as an undrafted free agent a year ago and going on to lead the team with 137 tackles.
No one in the Atlanta secondary managed more than three interceptions a year ago. Asante Samuel was not brought back, and the team will look to second-year man Desmond Trufant to make strides in his development.
The Falcons have dropped off significantly over the last year, and they just didn’t have a very good off-season to make me think that a bounce-back year is in the cards. Julio Jones’ return is a major plus. But there’s still serious problems with the offensive line and defense. There’s still no running game. And there’s no more Tony Gonzalez. This is a team with some serious problems. This is one of the more competitive divisions in the NFC, and with even the fourth-place Bucs taking some steps forward, its hard to imagine Atlanta becoming a playoff factor again this year.
Projected Finish: 7-9, 3rd Place
One of the surprise teams of 2013, the Panthers are out to show that last season was no fluke.
Cam Newton finally began to figure out how to win games in the NFL last year, but he’s had problems with his ankle over the off-season, leaving questions about his durability over a full season.
The problem is that Newton doesn’t have a great supporting cast around him. Running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert are just OK. Its a trio of guys that collectively share the running back duties, and while its not a terrible situation, none of these guys put fear into opposing defenses.
Wide receiver is an even worse situation, with veteran playmaker Steve Smith now in Baltimore. The team used its top pick on tall target Kelvin Benjamin, but he’s a guy that might need some time to develop and might not be able to make as immediate of an impact as the team would like. Not only did the team lose Smith, but Brandon LaFell, Tedd Ginn, and Dominic Hixon all also departed in free agency. A situation where a team loses all of their top four wideouts in one offseason is exceptionally rare.
Newton’s offensive line also took a hit with the retirement of Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross.
The strength of the Panthers is their defense.
Defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson combined for 26 sacks, giving the Panthers one of the better pass-rushing tandems in the business. Star Lotulelei and Kawann short both did excellent jobs at defensive tackle in their rookie years, and should only make this great defensive line even stronger.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly has been the rookie of the year, and the defensive player of the year in each of his first two seasons. He’s the leader of this defense, and is turning into one of the game’s best all-around defenders. Kuechly has a couple of solid veterans around him in Thomas Davis and Chase Blackburn. Davis played at a Pro Bowl level a year ago.
The secondary is still without a true shutdown corner, or a playmaking safety, but the strength of the front seven can help cover for some of their flaws.
The Panthers were a team that I thought overachieved last year. Their defense was able to make up for a lot of the offense’s short comings, and in a weaker division the Panthers were able to make a run towards the playoffs. This year, I think its going to be a little difficult for Carolina to repeat that success. While the defense is still strong enough to keep them in a lot of games, the health of Cam Newton combined with weaknesses at the receiver and offensive line positions make me think that this group takes a step back in 2014.
Still good enough to finish second in the division. But not good enough to return to the playoffs.
Projected Finish: 8-8, 2nd Place
New Orleans Saints
After a poor 2012 season, the Saints bounced back to finish with an 11-5 record and returned to the playoffs as a Wild Card, and ultimately finished with a second-round exit.
The return of head coach Sean Payton really brought a lot of stability back to the franchise. Drew Brees turned in another 5,000 yard season with 39 touchdowns, and tight end Jimmy Graham supplied a tremendous year of his own with 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Brees is 35 now, but has shown no signs of slowing down. He’s the leader of a very potent offense, and the Saints now have a new weapon with first-round pick Brandin Cooks. Cooks is a shorter, faster receiver that figures to take on a lot of the workload left open by the departed Darren Sproles. Expect to see a lot of underneath routes and screens for the electric rookie.
Running back is still a by-committee approach with duties split between reliable Pierre Thomas, disappointing former first-round pick Mark Ingram, and last year’s undrafted free agent Khiry Robinson. This is far and a way a pass-first and pass-heavy offense, where the running game is an afterthought. The greatness of Brees and his vertical threats makes it all work.
The New Orleans defense made some nice strides last season, and should be even better this year.
The pass rush is strong, anchored by pass rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, who each had 12 sacks. Linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are always around the football, and combined for over 250 tackles in 2013.
The secondary has gotten some significant upgrades with the additions of playmaking safety Jairus Byrd and veteran corner Champ Bailey. Byrd has 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in his career, and he’s expected to bring some of those turnovers to the Saints defense. Bailey has had a Hall Of Fame career, and has very little left to prove, but he’s still chasing that elusive Super Bowl ring that he’s been unable to obtain after 16 seasons.
After a fluke season in 2012, the Saints are back on top of the NFC South. Their high-powered offense and improving defense makes them a force to reckoned with the NFC. They should easily emerge as the top team in the NFC South, and are one of the few teams that can be considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Projected Finish: 12-4, 1st Place