NFC South: 2012 One big question

Saints: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Is there any hope after the bounty scandal?

Going an entire season without coach Sean Payton is far from ideal. But, aside from that, the Saints -- by planning, luck or a combination of the two -- didn’t come out of this horrid offseason with nearly as many offseason problems as they could have.

Really, all they're losing as far as personnel is defensive end Will Smith for the first four games of the season. Yeah, I know linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the entire season. With all due respect to Vilma, he was a great player a few years ago, but he’s on the downside of his career and the Saints upgraded when they signed free agent Curtis Lofton. Just for insurance, they also signed linebackers David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. Throw the new guys in with Scott Shanle, Martez Wilson, Jonathan Casillas and Will Herring, and the Saints are stronger at linebacker than they were last season.

If new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can figure out a way to generate a pass rush without Smith (and improve it when he returns), the Saints will be just fine on defense. We already know they’re just fine on offense, assuming quarterback Drew Brees’ contract situation gets worked out. There might be a few more weeks or months of drama on that end, but I don’t see any way the Saints go into the season without Brees' having a long-term deal.

Get Brees back in there, and the Saints could combine marketing campaigns with the NBA’s Hornets, who were just purchased by Saints owner Tom Benson. The Saints truly are a hornet’s nest right now. They (and their fans) are steaming mad at the NFL, the media and pretty much everyone outside of their world. You can see an "us-against-the-world" mentality building. As motivational ploys go, that’s not a bad one. Oh, here's a little more motivation. The Super Bowl is in New Orleans. The Saints and their fans could show up the NFL if they make it to the Super Bowl.

Falcons: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
12:00
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Did the Falcons do enough to get tough enough up front?

The Falcons went hard after offensive linemen in the draft. They took Wisconsin guard/center Peter Konz in the second round and Southern Mississippi tackle Lamar Holmes in the third. They also added guard Vince Manuwai in free agency.

The plan seems to be to throw Konz and Manuwai out there with guard Justin Blalock, center Todd McClure, guard Garrett Reynolds and guard/center Joe Hawley. The Falcons will let them all compete in training camp and and then decide which combination gives them the best interior. Konz probably will emerge as a starter, and either he or Hawley could replace McClure, who is aging fast. That should improve the interior of the offensive line, but what about the outside? Left tackle Sam Baker struggled last season, and the fact that Holmes was sitting there in the third round is a pretty good indicator that he’s not ready to step in and be a stud left tackle.

If the Falcons really are serious about throwing downfield more, they have to give quarterback Matt Ryan more time. The Falcons still may have to add a left tackle (Marcus McNeill) to compete with Baker if they really want to solidify their offensive line.

Speaking of solidifying lines, the Falcons haven’t done much on the defensive side, and that also was a problem area last year. They brought back veteran defensive end John Abraham, but they don’t have any other especially strong pass-rushers. I wouldn’t count on an immediate impact from fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi. Guys like Ray Edwards, Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury have to step up, or the Falcons have to go try to find a pass-rusher in what remains of free agency.

Buccaneers: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
12:00
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Can Josh Freeman bounce back?

The Tampa Bay quarterback had a dismal 2011 season. He threw 22 interceptions after throwing only six in a promise-filled 2010 season.

So which season is more indicative of what Freeman is capable of doing? The new Tampa Bay coaching staff seems to think the 2010 version was the real Freeman. Ever since Greg Schiano took over as head coach, he and every assistant have been raving about Freeman’s ability. I tend to agree with them, because I think Freeman has all the physical skills and intangibles.

Freeman certainly wasn’t without flaw or fault last season. But I think his problems were the result of the dysfunction all around him. Former coach Raheem Morris and his staff were unraveling, and the weak supporting cast around Freeman got exposed in a big way.

That’s why just about every move Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik have made this offseason seems aimed at making Freeman’s life easier. They got him a true No. 1 receiver in Vincent Jackson. They beefed up his protection by getting Carl Nicks, who might be the best guard in the league. Then, they drafted an all-purpose running back in Doug Martin.

The parts all seem to be in place. Now, it’s up to Freeman to make the most of them.

Panthers: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
12:00
PM ET
Can the defense be as good as the offense?

Quarterback Cam Newton and coordinator Rob Chudzinski arrived last year and instantly gave the Panthers the most exciting offense in franchise history. It could have been a special season. It wasn’t, though, and that’s because the defense was dismal.

That had to be hard to take for coach Ron Rivera, a former defensive coordinator. The offense remains pretty much intact, and it has added fullback/running back Mike Tolbert, so there should be plenty of points again next season. But the Panthers have to stop other teams from scoring so much if they really are going to contend in the NFC South.

They took a big step by drafting middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who should start right away. But this offseason wasn’t as much about rebuilding the defense as it was getting key components healthy. Defensive tackle Ron Edwards, whom the Panthers signed last year to fix their run defense once and for all, is expected back at full strength after missing all of last season with an injury.

Linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason also are coming back from injuries that kept them out most of last season. Beason should step right back in as the leader of this defense. Davis is a question mark because he’s coming back from his third torn ACL. Anything Davis can give this defense will be a plus.

But adding Kuechly and getting Beason and Edwards back means the Panthers should be able to put a respectable defense on the field on a consistent basis.

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