The seventh of eight divisional looks ahead at the upcoming NFL season. -----
ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6, 2nd in NFC South, in 2011)
The good: I'm not quite as high on WR Julio Jones as most, if only because expectations for Jones' immediate future are completely through the roof, but he and Roddy White are one of the elite receiving tandems in the league. ... What Eagles coach Andy Reid said about CB Asante Samuel was probably too harsh, but it's hard to look at the newcomer as a superstar at this point. With that said, he, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson are a nice cornerback trio (though a less talented one than the one Samuel was part of in 2011, and that didn't go so well). ... John Abraham is 34 and had his sack total drop by 3.5 last season, but he, Ray Edwards and Kroy Biermann give the Falcons more than most teams have at defensive end.
The bad: A pretty mediocre offensive line will be protecting QB Matt Ryan and opening holes for declining RB Michael Turner. LT Sam Baker and RG Garrett Reynolds are both slated to start after losing their jobs during the 2011 season. ... However much above average the Falcons' cornerback play is, their safety play may be just as far below average. William Moore and Thomas DeCloud comprise the weakest part of the defense. ... OLB Sean Weatherspoon is fresh off a 115-tackle, four-sack season, but I'm not sold on the guys starting next to him, Stephen Nicholas and new ILB Akeem Dent.
The verdict: The Falcons' receivers and TE Tony Gonzalez ensure they'll put up good passing numbers, though I am off the Ryan bandwagon after another playoff dud. But I think this is an average team otherwise. The finish: 8-8, t-2nd in NFC South
CAROLINA PANTHERS (6-10, 3rd in NFC South, in 2011)
The good: I thought QB Cam Newton would struggle as a rookie. He instead established himself as one of the most dynamic talents in the league. I think he only gets better in 2012, and beyond. ... Never in a million years would I pay DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart the way the Panthers did, but they, along with Newton and newcomer Mike Tolbert, should form one of the very best running games in the NFL. ... Linebacker, where the Panthers get Jon Beason back from injury and add rookie Kuechly, could go from a weakness to a real strength for the defense.
The bad: DE Charles Johnson didn't exactly have a terrible 2011 after getting paid, with nine sacks, but even so, it's a weak defensive line even with him. DE Greg Hardy and DTs Dwan and Ron Edwards are the other likely starters. ... I don't think the Panthers' receivers are the disaster some do. They do still have Steve Smith, after all, though I'll readily admit what's behind him (Brandon LaFell, Louis Murphy) is underwhelming. ... It's not a great seconary, particularly at safety, where Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin are the likely first-teamers.
The verdict: I've read dozens of cautionary notes about thinking too highly about the Panthers this offseason. Between Newton and them being healthier on defense, I don't see how they don't continue to get better. The finish: 8-8, t-2nd in NFC South
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3, 1st in NFC South, in 2011)
The good: The Manning brothers, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers (plus the Jets' scrubs) all seem to get more ink than Drew Brees, but they shouldn't. He's as good as it gets under center. ... At least some of Brees' 5,476-yard-season success is due to the deep and dynamic receiving group assembed around him. Between freak-of-nature TE Jimmy Graham, speedy RB Darren Sproles and more conventional WR Marques Colston, there's a bit of everything here. ... It's a good secondary, featuring Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins at safety, at least if young CBs Patrick Robinson and Johnny Patrick do the job.
The bad: I haven't mentioned coaches much in these previews, even though I do think they do make a difference in football. They especially make a difference when they're not there, as Sean Payton won't be. The bounty scandal can't not hurt the Saints some. ... DEs Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and DTs Sedrick Ellis and Brodrick Bunkley comprise one of the most underwhelming 4-3 defensive fronts in football. ... Linebacker isn't too much better, as the Falcons didn't seem terribly concerned about letting ILB Curtis Lofton go and Scott Shanle and David Hawthorne are hardly stars outside of him.
The verdict: There's going to be a drop-off, due to the player and coach suspensions the Saints are experiencing and the fact that the division's worst teams got better. I do think Brees sneaks them in the playoffs. The finish: 9-7, 1st in NFC South
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-12, 4th in NFC South, in 2011)
The good: Rookie safety Mark Barron and new CB Eric Wright should make the secondary the best part of this team. CB Aqib Talib is the goods when he's not in trouble, and Ronde Barber can, it seems, still play. ... I don't know that WR Vincent Jackson is a true No. 1 receiver, but I do know that the Bucs look a lot better at the position with Mike Williams as a No. 2, not a No. 1, and Arrelious Benn a No. 3, not a starter. ... Maybe this offensive line still won't be great, but LG Carl Nicks is an upgrade over just about anyone at his position, and he'll certainly make the line a lot better.
The bad: Quincy Black, Mason Foster and Lavonte David aren't household names in Tampa Bay, I'm guessing, let alone Illinois, but they're the Bucs' projected starters at linebacker. I wouldn't call them frightening. ... DT Gerald McCoy has played just 19 games in two seasons. His health is the difference between this being a potentially good young defensive line and a poor one. ... QB Josh Freeman, he of the 16-22 TD-to-interception ratio last season, must be better for the Bucs to have a chance, and I don't know that he will be.
The verdict: Between the arrivals of Nicks and Jackson and the fact that Raheem Morris isn't letting the inmates run the asylum anymore, the Bucs have to be better. I think they'll be more competitive, for sure, but not necessarily more successful. The finish: 4-12, 4th in NFC South