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Good Review on the NFC South


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A look at the strengths, weaknesses, rehab issues and what to expect in the NFC South, as provided by SN's NFL correspondents:

New Orleans Saints

The strength: The Saints have the most potent and versatile offense in the NFL, led by Drew Brees(notes). Coach Sean Payton is the game's most creative play caller, and he creates mismatches using a deep array of weapons. The Saints are loaded at receiver, running back and tight end and have three Pro Bowlers in the offensive line.

The weakness: The defense was inconsistent against the run last year, especially in the second half of the season, and allowed too many breakaway runs. The Saints didn't change personnel much this offseason, so they're hoping to repair the issue with better technique and fundamentals.

The rehab: FS Darren Sharper(notes) didn't make it back from his offseason knee surgery in time for the start of the regular season. He'll be on the PUP list for at least six weeks before the Saints decide if he's healthy enough to help them down the stretch. The Saints have faith in the instincts of replacement Malcolm Jenkins(notes), who moved from cornerback to safety this offseason.

The key addition: Veteran LE Alex Brown(notes) is the only new addition expected to start, though recently added LB Danny Clark(notes) could step in at strongside linebacker. Brown, a solid starter for most of his eight seasons in Chicago, will replace longtime starter Charles Grant(notes). The 6-3, 260-pounder has 431Ž2 career sacks and should be an upgrade against the run.

The bottom line: History suggests the Saints will have a hard time getting back to the Super Bowl. But they have almost every key player back from last season. Payton's versatile offense and coordinator Gregg Williams' aggressive defense will again make this team one of the NFL's toughest matchups every week. Barring injury problems, they should reach double-digit wins and return to the playoffs.—Mike Triplett

Atlanta Falcons

The strength: With the offensive line returning intact, the running game should prosper. The unit is anchored by C Todd McClure(notes) and will clear the way for RBs Michael Turner(notes), Jerious Norwood(notes) and Jason Snelling(notes). Also, FB Ovie Mughelli(notes) is a forceful lead blocker.

The weakness: The Falcons allowed 242.1 yards passing per game last season and return three of the four starters in the secondary. Free-agent addition Dunta Robinson(notes) has to have a great impact at corner to help this unit improve, and CBs Christopher Owens(notes) and Brent Grimes(notes) must step up their play.

The rehab: After Turner's 2009 season was cut short by a high right ankle sprain, he has worked hard in rehab and is much leaner. He also appears to be running with a nastier attitude. He wants to get off to a fast start this season to squelch the notion that his 1,699-yard season in 2008 was a fluke. Though the Falcons plan to reduce his carries, they want to make him a vital part of the passing attack.

The key addition: Robinson was signed to provide blanket one side of the field. The Falcons love his physical style and ability to lock up top receivers. With Robinson, the defense won't always have to sit back in a cover 2 scheme. He provides the Falcons with the ability to mix up defenses and disguise coverages better.

The bottom line: The offense should continue to move forward with QB Matt Ryan(notes) in his third season. But a lot of things have to fall into place on defense for the unit to achieve success. If the D can come along quickly, the Falcons will have a shot at dethroning the Saints as NFC South champions.—D. Orlando Ledbetter

Carolina Panthers

The strength: The running game should be close to 100 percent. RB Jonathan Stewart(notes) said last week he is ready to go after missing the offseason recovering from Achilles' surgery. With Stewart and DeAngelo Williams(notes), the Panthers have the best duo in the league.

The weakness: The running game better be good because the passing game may not be. First-year starter Matt Moore(notes) had a 56.1 passer rating in the preseason, and the team still doesn't have an answer at the second receiver slot. oser to an answer at the second receiver (perennial tease Dwayne Jarrett(notes) or rookie Brandon LaFell(notes)) than they were the first day of camp. If Steve Smith has any rust, they're in trouble.

The rehab: RT Jeff Otah(notes) had arthroscopic surgery on a torn meniscus last December, then needed another knee scope in August. If the massive run-blocker is back soon, it makes Stewart and Williams that much more special. But the Panthers don't know if he'll be ready for the opener, and when a man his size keeps having leg/foot/ankle problems, there's concern it they will be chronic.

The key addition: Rookie DE Greg Hardy(notes) came with risk (injuries, attitude) but has so far looked like a sixth-round steal. With Hardy and Everette Brown(notes) providing some pop off the bench, the Panthers have good depth at end as they try to replace Julius Peppers(notes).

The bottom line: This is a transitional year for the Panthers, who are breaking in a number of young starters on both sides of the ball. At the same time, there's enough established talent to give the kids some cushion. The depth is thin because of offseason departures, but if the Panthers can stay relatively healthy, they have a chance to be a surprise team.—Darin Gantt

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The strength: In the past two years, only two secondaries—Green Bay's (52) and Baltimore's (48)—have intercepted more passes than Tampa Bay's, which has 41 picks in that span. The Bucs have rising stars in FS Tanard Jackson(notes) and CB Aqib Talib(notes) and a potential Hall of Famer in CB Ronde Barber(notes). If the Bucs can ever get a pass rush, it could be a real nightmare to throw against them.

The weakness: The Bucs picked up DTs Gerald McCoy(notes) and Brian Price(notes) in an effort to bolster an ailing pass rush. Don't count on those two rookies making that much of an impact. It usually takes a while for tackles to make their way in this league and even if they lure double-teams, the Bucs will probably have to blitz to put any pressure on the quarterback.

The rehab: TE Kellen Winslow(notes) is basically playing on one knee—his left. The right one has been operated on six times, including this past offseason when he went through a routine cleanup. The Bucs goal every week is to get Winslow ready for Sunday, so he'll miss practice occasionally. Come game day, though, he's usually as good as anyone, as his 77 catches last year attest.

The key addition: The Bucs took a chance drafting WR Mike Williams in the fourth round. Williams was adorned in red flags on draft day, but he looked like a seasoned veteran through the preseason. A lot of scouts had Williams rated as a first-round talent, and the Bucs hope he can add some juice to their passing game and give QB Josh Freeman(notes) a reliable big-play target.

The bottom line: This is yet another rebuilding year for the Bucs. The team believes it has its foundation in place, and we'll find out this year if that foundation is sturdy or has cracks in it. Either way, look for the Bucs to be a little better than last year, but not that much better.—Roy Cummings

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The bottom line: The offense should continue to move forward with QB Matt Ryan(notes) in his third season. But a lot of things have to fall into place on defense for the unit to achieve success. If the D can come along quickly, the Falcons will have a shot at dethroning the Saints as NFC South champions

Pretty much what I said in my writeup as well. I do think that the Falcons drop some close ones near the end of the season and I think Carolina will steal one with a better overall squad for them this year. A respectable 9-7 for you guys is my prediction, certainly playoff contenders. If you guys qualify for the playoffs, then you might be that sleeper team that goes far in Jan.

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