NFC South: 2014 NFL key to success

Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears were a consistent contender because they played strong defense. The coach will try to get the same result with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the ingredients are there for that to happen.

David
McCoy
McCoy
Smith inherited some special talent in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. Both are just reaching their prime. Smith has compared McCoy to Warren Sapp and David to Derrick Brooks. Sapp and Brooks were the keys to the defense during Tampa Bay’s glory days. The Bucs believe McCoy and David can fill the same roles in the new generation and that a strong defense will help make the franchise relevant again.

McCoy and David are going to be good for years to come and they form a strong foundation. But the Bucs will need some complementary players to come through for this defense to be really good. Defensive end Michael Johnson was brought in as a free agent because the Bucs believe he can bring pressure from the outside. If he does, that’s only going to help McCoy and Clinton McDonald in the middle.

A strong pass rush will only help a secondary that has good potential, but hasn’t hit it yet. Alterraun Verner was brought in to be the No. 1 cornerback, but the Bucs need Johnthan Banks and Mike Jenkins to step up as the other cornerback and nickelback. Safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron have talent and can form a nice tandem.

Middle linebacker Mason Foster is going to get a chance to play a more significant role than he has in the past. Foster will call the defensive plays and be asked to drop into coverage more than he did in his first three seasons.

This defense will be the key factor in determining if Smith’s regime will succeed. The offense can be average, but the defense has to be special.

Saints' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
7/10/14
12:00
PM ET
Drew Brees is 35 years old, but I see no reason to expect any significant drop-off in his performance in the next three seasons -– especially because the savvy quarterback doesn’t rely solely on a big arm. As long as Brees stays healthy, New Orleans should remain among the NFL’s elite Super Bowl contenders through 2016 and beyond.

Brees
So far, the Saints have done a remarkable job of continually replenishing the roster with new young stars around Brees. The defense is arguably in better shape now than it has ever been in the Brees-Sean Payton era –- and they don’t have a single player remaining from their 2009 Super Bowl championship roster.

The key for the Saints will be to keep reshaping their offense the same way, particularly at the line and receiver positions. The Saints need recent draft picks such as left tackle Terron Armstead and receivers Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills pan out so they remain an elite offensive unit.

For now, veteran standouts such as receiver Marques Colston and linemen Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs and Zach Strief are still in the tail end of their primes. But it’s possible that one or more will need to be replaced over the next three seasons due to a drop in production, a rise in salary or both.

The offensive line, in particular, is going through one of its biggest transitions right now. Armstead is taking over the vital left tackle spot, while second-year pro Tim Lelito and veteran Jonathan Goodwin are battling over the vacated center job. The Saints’ line showed more inconsistency this past season than usual before finishing strong. They need to prove they're still a strength and not a question mark going forward.

Panthers' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
7/10/14
12:00
PM ET
Three words. Salary cap management.

Gettleman
The Carolina Panthers were $16 million over the cap when general manager Dave Gettleman was hired in February 2013. They had little wiggle room to improve a team that had not made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2008. Between tough cuts, renegotiations and finding bargain players who have performed, he put the team more than $15 million under the cap.

Carolina still is not completely cap healthy. Huge contracts given to running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, as well as defensive end Charles Johnson, by former management will force Gettleman to remain somewhat frugal through 2015. But he's at least put the team in position to sign key players such as quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and defensive end Greg Hardy to long-term deals.

The key to maintaining the success started with a 12-4 2013 season is keeping the star players under contract and being smart about signing the role-players around them. It's the same formula Seattle used to win the Super Bowl this past season.

With Newton and Kuechly in particular, the Panthers have anchors -- and leaders -- on both sides of the ball that should help them remain competitive for years to come. They'll make it easier to sign bargain free agents because players will want to come to Carolina to play with them. The closer Gettleman gets the Panthers to a cap-healthy state, the more flexibility he will have in bringing in those players. But the priority will be to continue to draft young stars, as Carolina has the past three years, and have the money to keep them after their rookie contracts expire.

The key will be to not overspend as past management did, making it tougher to keep the solid nucleus that Gettleman has solidified.

Falcons' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
7/10/14
12:00
PM ET
The Atlanta Falcons plan to be back in Super Bowl contention this season. But it's not just about rebounding from last year's 4-12 campaign. It's about maintaining the success they've had since Mike Smith took over as coach; Smith has posted a 60-36 record since arriving in 2008.

Ryan
Ryan
Over the next three years, maintaining an emphasis on offense will be the biggest key to success. Nothing is more important than keeping franchise quarterback Matt Ryan upright and healthy. The team firmly believes Ryan is an elite quarterback when given ample opportunity to deliver the ball. The hope is a rebuilt offensive line, featuring veteran offensive guard Jon Asamoah and first-round draft pick Jake Matthews, that will be solid for years to come. But the Falcons have to continue to develop depth, particularly at tackle, just in case a player like Sam Baker (knee) doesn't hold up for an entire season.

Of course, giving Ryan all the protection in the world means nothing without playmakers catching the ball. That's why the Falcons have to lock up top receiver Julio Jones with a lucrative, long-term contract. Picking up the fifth-year option on Jones allowed the team to assure he'd be around through at least 2015. Although Jones is coming off a significant foot injury, the Falcons are certain he'll return to his old explosive self. At his best, Jones is probably one of the top two receivers in the league, along with Calvin Johnson. Johnson makes $16 million per year; Jones will make $10,176,000 in 2015 as part of the option year.

The Falcons are built to be an offensive team, and that won't change any time soon. They'll likely have to invest in another receiver unless they can get another solid three years out of Roddy White. They'll have to look into a pass-catching tight end if promising Levine Toilolo doesn't make the necessary strides. And the running game doesn't have to be dynamic, just solid. Devonta Freeman could be the every-down back they count on over the next three years.

Defensively, the Falcons won't be in the top five in the league. They probably won't even be in the top 10. They just need to be good enough to keep opposing teams from scoring in the high 20s and breaking off explosive play after explosive play. The future looks bright with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford at the corners. The Falcons will have to invest in a pass-rusher at some point while also addressing needs at linebacker. But the defense doesn't have to be great for the team to have success.

The offense, however, certainly needs to be dynamic.

SPONSORED HEADLINES