Michael Vick who? The Falcons did all they could to distance themselves from their former QB, and gave their fans reason to move on. QB Matt Ryan made management look brilliant, playing efficient, productive football. Although he had just 16 TDs, he threw just 11 INT, and he mastered the art of handing the ball to Michael Turner. In fact, he handed the ball to Turner more than any QB handed it to any back last year, to the tune of 376 carries. Turner excelled in his first season out from behind LaDanian Tomlinson in San Diego, and proved that he has what it takes to be a feature back. Roddy White is one of the league’s most underrated receivers, posting back-to-back 80 catch, 1,200 yard, 6 TD seasons. Defensively, the Falcons shook things up, releasing several of the players who contributed to their 24th ranked unit. The Falcons were 11-5 last year despite their defensive struggles; if they improve even a little on defense, they could be poised for a deep playoff run.
RB: Michael Turner – 376 carries, 1,699 yards, 17 TD
WR: Roddy White – 88 rec, 1,382 yards, 7 TD
QB: Matt Ryan – 3,440 yards, 16 TD, 11 INT, 61.1% comp. pct.
DE: John Abraham – 16.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles
Projected Record: 12-4
The Panthers formula last season was quite similar to the Falcons: Unstoppable running game, efficient “game-managing” QB, and a defense that didn’t excel, but seemed to make plays at the right times. DeAngelo Williams broke out of his shell in a HUGE way, leading the league with 18 rushing touchdowns. Coupled with Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers were second only to the Giants in rushing yards. The Panthers were almost non-existant during the offseason, and appear to be content with the pieces they have in place. That may not be a bad thing, as they won 12 games last year, but the Falcons appear ready to improve, and Matt Ryan has more upside than Jake Delhomme. Julius Peppers continues to be a monster on defense, and with him in the game, the offense must always be on their toes.
RB: DeAngelo Williams – 273 carries, 1515 yards, 18 TD
RB: Jonathan Stewart – 184 carries, 836 yards, 10 TD
DE: Julius Peppers – 51 tackles, 14.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles
WR: Steve Smith – 78 rec, 1,421 yards, 6 TD
Projected Record: 11-5
New Orleans Saints
The Saints had one of the leagues most prolific offenses last season. But, reminiscent of the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams, defensively, they were not nearly as impressive. On the plus side, it made for a lot of exciting shoot-outs, with scores such as 34-32, 37-32, 51-29, and 33-31. Drew Brees is among the top echelon of NFL QBs, and he spread the ball around so much that 6 different players had over 400 receiving yards, and 5 had at least 40 receptions. This formula also applied to the running game, which saw 3 backs run for 400 yards, but none for more than 625. Defense, as mentioned, is the primary area of concern. They allowed far too many yards, and were unable to produce big plays. They made several personel moves to try and address their D, but none was the type of move that makes you feel like they are improved enough to run with the big guns.
QB: Drew Brees – 5,069 yards, 34 TD, 17 INT, 65 pct. comp.
WR: Lance Moore – 79 rec, 928 yards, 10 TD
CB: Jason David – 23 tackles, 5 INT, 2 sacks
Projected Record: 9-7
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers took part in an epic collapse last season, going from 9-3 and playoff shoe-ins, to losing their final 4, including an embarrassing home loss to the woeful Raiders. They are very underwhelming on offense, getting just enough from all their position players to get by. The Bucs ranked 9th in overall defense, and should be solid once again. However, they don’t have the firepower to keep up with some of the higher-octane teams in the league, and their defense, while strong, is not the same shutdown Bucs D of recent years. Byron Lefwich was brought in in the offseason, and appears to have the inside track on the starting QB job. How he adapts to this system will play a big role in the Bucs’ success. Derrick Ward, Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham lead a stable of running backs who will need to grind out yards to help Leftwich’s transition. Along with Ward, another new piece to the puzzle is tight end Kellen Winslow from the Browns.
WR: Antonio Bryant – 83 rec, 1,248 yards, 7 TD
RB: Derrick Ward- 182 car, 1,025 yards, 2 TD
RB: Earnest Graham – 132 car, 563 yards, 4 TD
CB: Ronde Barber – 75 tackles, 4 INT (1 TD), 2 sacks
Projected Record: 7-9
Dan Mason is an accountant by trade only – he would much rather write. He constantly daydreams about being in the woods or on the water, in the middle of nowhere. He resides in the Rochester, NY, area and is thankful the Adirondacks are only a few hours’ drive away. He is happiest when there is a pen (read: keyboard) or a canoe paddle in his hand.