Leading Questions: NFC South

February, 15, 2011
2/15/11
12:00
PM ET
With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC South team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

ATLANTA FALCONS

How do the Falcons take the next step?

Atlanta went an NFC-best 13-3 in the regular season, but got eliminated at home in the playoffs by Green Bay. That was painful proof that the Falcons haven’t quite arrived despite three consecutive winning seasons since coach Mike Smith took over. The Falcons played like a well-oiled machine through most of the regular season and it would be easy to say the machine just got clogged in the playoffs. But that’s not what really happened. The Falcons were successful during the regular season because they played smart football and didn’t do anything to beat themselves. But the reality here is the machine might need a few more parts for the Falcons truly to go out and beat other teams.

The core is solid with guys like quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner and linebacker Curtis Lofton. But White was the only real playmaker on offense last season, and defensive end John Abraham, who is nearing the end of his career, was the only one on defense. Whether it’s a speed back or a wide receiver who can provide a deep threat, the Falcons need to find a difference-maker on offense. They need the same thing on defense, and a pass-rusher to complement, and eventually replace, Abraham could be the top priority in the draft.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

What does Carolina do at quarterback?

A new era is starting with the arrival of coach Ron Rivera, and everyone in the organization knows it can’t be like the final few seasons of John Fox’s tenure. The Panthers simply stopped having a legitimate NFL offense. Fox’s conservative approach to offense certainly played a role, but the real problem is that the Panthers simply haven’t had a dependable quarterback since Jake Delhomme fell apart in a playoff loss to Arizona at the end of the 2008 season. That’s handcuffed the entire franchise and was the major reason the Panthers went 2-14 last year.

In typical Fox fashion, he handed the starting job to career backup Matt Moore. When that didn’t work, Fox reluctantly turned to Jimmy Clausen and didn’t help the rookie’s confidence by yanking him out of the lineup several times. Although some in the organization believe, with a fresh start, Clausen can develop into a decent starter, the Panthers can’t rely totally on that. This franchise has to do something major to get a viable alternative at quarterback. With the No. 1 pick in the draft, the Panthers could take a leap on Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton, but neither comes with any guarantees. With talk that Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer, Vince Young and Kevin Kolb could be available, the Panthers might have to break from tradition and sign or trade for a veteran. With receiver Steve Smith, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and a talented offensive line, the Panthers can’t afford to continue to let the offense rot away due to ineffective play at quarterback.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Can the Saints get back to the Super Bowl?

The nucleus of the 2009 team that went on to win the Super Bowl remains largely in place, so there’s no reason the Saints shouldn’t at least be in contention for a deep playoff run. They never really suffered the collapse that’s been common for many recent Super Bowl winners as they went 11-5 in 2010. But they weren’t the same dominant and explosive team. Injuries played a role in that and a few holes were exposed.

But a little better luck on the injury front and a few tweaks could put the Saints right back where they were. After the season, quarterback Drew Brees admitted he played part of the year with a sprained knee. That might explain why he wasn’t as precise as the Super Bowl season, and a healthy Brees automatically would make the Saints better. But the biggest issue on offense is the running game. With Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush banged-up for most of the season, the Saints weren’t able to run the ball consistently. Chris Ivory stepped in and did a nice job at times, but the Saints know they have to upgrade in this area. Thomas probably will be allowed to leave as a free agent. The Saints probably will use an early draft pick on a running back or sign someone of significance in free agency. On defense, the Saints have to get back to being opportunistic and taking advantage of turnovers like they did in the Super Bowl season. Upgrading the pass rush is the best way to make sure that happens.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Where will the Bucs find an outside pass rush?

Not on their current roster. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder are just “guys’’ and that showed all too often as Tampa Bay’s pass rush was anemic. The Bucs broke from tradition and won with offense -- mainly quarterback Josh Freeman -- for the first time in franchise history last season. There is talent elsewhere on defense, but the Bucs need to improve the pass rush to elevate the overall play of the defense and make this a complete team.

Look for something similar to last offseason when the Bucs realized they had problems at defensive tackle. They went out and used their first two draft picks on Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Both ended up having their seasons shortened by injuries, but both showed some promise. They’ll be back healthy and will be joined by Roy Miller in the middle. That trio should create a decent inside pass rush, but the Bucs know they need more talent on the outside. It might not be the same scenario as last year with the Bucs using their top two picks on defensive ends. They may draft one early and look for another potential starter in free agency.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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