By SAM SPIEGELMAN
One of my favorite NFL trends that remains true to this day: no NFC South champion has been able to repeat.
I believe that remains true in 2014, as the New Orleans Saints have re-loaded, adding more weapons on both sides of the ball to overtake current champion Carolina. The Panthers had arguably the worst offseason, losing key players to put Cam Newton into a difficult position. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to embark on Year 1 of the Lovie Smith era, while the Atlanta Falcons look to bounce back after an unprecedented down year.
Here are the 10 burning questions for the NFC South in 2014:
1. Should the Saints be considered the favorites to win the division?
Without question. I expect New Orleans to challenge Seattle and San Francisco for the top seed in the NFC as well. The Saints have a wealth of offensive talent around Drew Brees, and on the defensive side of the ball have assembled one of the best secondaries in the league. It may be an even more balanced team than the Super Bowl XLIV-winning squad.
2. Will the Panthers regress?
Again, yes. It's not a knock on Newton or Ron Rivera, but the front office. The organization let too many quality role players walk in free agency. Now the Panthers have to piece together an offensive line and secondary. And as for who Newton can hand the rock off to or throw to - it's arguably the worst collection of skill players in all the league.
3. Can the Falcons bounce back?
It happens in the NFC South more than any other division in the NFL. With Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Roddy White - plus a revamped offensive line - the offense can certainly make waves. The challenge will be on defense, where the unit is transforming into a 3-4 and may be subject to growing pains. After going 4-12 in 2013, I can see Atlanta getting six to eight wins this year.
4. What should we expect from Lovie Smith in his first season in Tampa?
Defensive players living up to their reputation. Listen, when your roster includes Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Alterraun Verner, Mark Barron, and Dashon Goldson, your defense should be ultra-competitive. Lovie will, fittingly, insert the Tampa 2, and the defense should brace for a strong season.
5. How dangerous is the Saints offense?
It has a strong chance of being the best in the NFL. Not only is the quarterback elite, but the top five or six receivers are all quality targets with multi-dimensional skill-sets. Jimmy Graham can be indefensible. Brandin Cooks should be a Darren Sproles, Percy Harvin-like weapon. Kenny Stills can stretch the field, and a backfield tandem of Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram should keep defenses on their toes.
6. Who's catching passes from Cam Newton?
Welp. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are the two veterans to keep an eye on. And I don't anticipate Kelvin Benjamin being a force until maybe later on in the year. A sleeper could be tight end Greg Olsen, who may have to be a safety valve for Newton who will be under pressure quite frequently.
7. What defensive changes did Atlanta make?
The team has shifted to a 3-4, with a lot of mediocre talent in its front seven. Kroy Biermann is the chief pass-rusher, and while he's a good player I don't know if he's a true difference-maker. The secondary might be the strongest level of this unit.
8. Can Josh McCown continue where he left off?
He has the weapons to. Tampa armed McCown with two 6-foot-5 targets in Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins to go along with Vincent Jackson, which resembles the Bears' Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. I'm still skeptical about whether McCown can succeed without Marc Trestman on the sidelines, but he has enough weapons around him to perhaps prove me wrong.
9. Where does the Saints secondary rank in the NFL?
Let's not discount the Legion of Boom, but New Orleans could have a close No. 2 secondary. Champ Bailey is the second corner in a unit featuring Keenan Lewis, and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro, arguably two of the top five safeties overall in the NFL. In the big picture, the Giants, Ravens, Cardinals, Browns, Broncos, Bucs, and Pats also sport strong secondaries.
10. Which is the second-best team in the NFC South?
The Falcons' defense is a major question mark. The Panthers have lost a number of major contributors. And the Buccaneers just underwent a coaching change. Still, I think the Bucs have the best chance at being the No. 2 team in the division, if McCown plays 80 percent as well as he did last year. He has a running game and strong defense to back him up, while Newton is a one-man team and the Falcons will have trouble stopping anybody.
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