By Christian Binder, WSOE Sports
Atlanta Falcons (2008 Record: 11-5)
-Key Additions: LB Mike Peterson, TE Tony Gonzalez, DT Peria Jerry
-Key Losses: LB Michael Boley, LB Keith Brooking
The Falcons were the feel-good story of the NFL last year. They had a rookie head coach that was relatively unknown and a rookie quarterback. Matt Ryan, a three-year starter at Boston College, had no problem transferring from college-level football to professional football. He won the Rookie of the Year award, throwing for 3,440 yards with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco were the first rookies to lead their teams to the playoffs after starting all 16 games in a season. The Falcons were also helped last year by the addition of running back Michael Turner, who was absolutely dominant in the ground game. The Falcons were able to sign receiver Roddy White to a contract extension this offseason, ensuring that the passing game has one of its most valuable weapons. The addition of longtime Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez should also help the passing game as he commands attention as a viable receiver. The losses of linebackers Michael Boley and Keith Brooking certainly hurt, but the Falcons will most likely be competitive again in the NFC South.
Carolina Panthers (2008 Record: 12-4)
-Key Additions: QB Josh McCown, OT Jeff Otah
-Key Losses: None
The Panthers were surprisingly successful last year. QB Jake Delhomme was coming off of Tommy John surgery, something very unusual for quarterbacks. He was relatively good considering his injury. He wound up throwing for 3,288 yards with 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The real strength of the Panthers lies in their smash-and-dash running back duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Williams rushed for 1,515 yards with 18 touchdowns, while Stewart rushed for 836 yards with 10 touchdowns. The Panthers have a dynamic offense, but it will be interesting to see how long it can stay that way. Delhomme is 34 years old, so he may or may not have a lot left in him. The defense is strong, led by sack artist Julius Peppers. An improvement on their 12-4 record seems unlikely, but the Panthers do have a chance to win the division again.
New Orleans Saints (2008 Record: 8-8)
-Key Additions: CB Malcolm Jenkins, S Pierson Prioleau, S Darren Sharper, K John Carney
-Key Losses: WR David Patten, RB Deuce McAllister
The Saints had the highest scoring offense in the NFL in 2008, thanks mainly to QB Drew Brees. Brees threw for 5,069 yards with 34 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. It seemed like every game was the Drew Brees show. The Saints had to throw the ball so much mainly because running backs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush were hurt so often. However, their injuries opened up the door for Pierre Thomas to showcase his talent, and he became a threat on the ground and in the air. With McAllister gone, Bush steps into the starting role. However, Thomas will likely share carries with Bush. If Bush can stay healthy, the Saints could have an even better offense this year. Their focus was clearly on the defense this offseason. They drafted Malcolm Jenkins out of Ohio State and signed safeties Pierson Prioleau and Darren Sharper. Last year, their defense was very vulnerable through the air. This year, they hope that they will limit big plays through the air. Obviously 8-8 is disappointing, so the Saints are looking to only go up this year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2008 Record: 9-7)
-Key Additions: QB Byron Leftwich, QB Josh Freeman, TE Kellen Winslow, Jr., RB Derrick Ward, LB Angelo Crowell
-Key Losses: QB Jeff Garcia, QB Brian Griese, LB Derrick Brooks, RB Warrick Dunn, WR Joey Galloway, WR Ike Hilliard, LB Cato June
The Buccaneers have had quite an eventful offseason. After missing the playoffs once again, the team fired head coach Jon Gruden and lost longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who left to join his son Lane at the University of Tennessee. Raheem Morris, the defensive backs coach, was promoted to defensive coordinator and, after the firing of Gruden, was promoted to head coach. The Buccaneers also lost starting quarterback Jeff Garcia to the Oakland Raiders. To replace him, they drafted Josh Freeman out of Kansas State and signed Byron Leftwich. The Bucs also acquired Kellen Winslow, Jr. from the Cleveland Browns and signed free agent running back Derrick Ward to bolster the offense. The offense is a work in progress, but the defense will look to carry the team. Although the defense will be without Derrick Brooks, it should be the key to this team winning games. It will be interesting to see how this team evolves over the course of the season.