Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
Key Additions: TE Tony Gonzalez, LB Mike Peterson, DT Peria Jerry
Key Subtractions: LB Keith Brooking, CB Domonique Foxworth
What a story the Falcons were last year. Despite being under the shadow of Michael Vick, they found a way to succeed. Matt Ryan, Roddy White, and Michael Turner became one of the best QB-WR-RB tandems in football, and they went to the playoffs. Now they've added ultra-professional Tony Gonzalez, giving Ryan another weapon, particularly in the red zone.
Brooking was a key cog to this defense, but Peterson should be able to help fill that gap. The most important position on the team is probably defensive end, where Jamaal Anderson has to prove he was worth the 8th overall pick in 2007. He's had just two sacks in his two years in the NFL, and if the Falcons are going to take another step forward, they'll need Anderson to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The talent is there, though, so I like his chances.
Projected 2009 record: 11-5
Carolina Panthers (12-4)
Key Additions: DE Everette Brown
Key Subtractions: KR/PR Mark Jones, CB Ken Lucas
The Panthers have become a classic Pittsburgh Steelers team, with a strong, punishing defense and a power running attack. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are perhaps the best 1-2 punch in football, and if they kick off 2009 like they finished 2008, good luck to anyone trying to stop them. The defense returns just about everyone, and the Panthers drafted Brown as a potential successor when Peppers inevitably leaves after this season. Never has a player been so frequently talked about as leaving a team and consistently returning. You have to think this season, barring a Super Bowl run, will be Peppers' last in the tobacco state.
I was surprised, though, that the Panthers didn't try to do something about their receivers in the offseason. Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad combined for 2,344 yards receiving, and the next highest total was from tight end Dante Rosario with 209. Dwayne Jarrett is going to need to take a considerable step forward to keep the "Bust" sign from flashing. Of course, how strong do your receivers need to be when you average 4.8 yards per carry?
Projected 2009 record: 11-5
New Orleans Saints (8-8)
Key Additions: CB Malcolm Jenkins, CB Jabari Greer, S Darren Sharper
Key Subtractions: RB Deuce McAllister, CB Jason David
Not surprisingly, very few changes were made to the offensive juggernaut that is the New Orleans Saints. McAllister was allowed to depart, but really he was gone by mid-season last year anyways. Word is that Sean Payton loves running back Pierre Thomas, and Reggie Bush will still get reps as the tailback. Between Bush, Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, and Lance Moore, Brees has one of the better receiving corps in football, and he's shown he knows just how to exploit that. Whether that will translate to victories is anyone's guess.
I put Jason David as a key subtraction, but it's also a form of addition by subtraction. David led the team with five interceptions, but got beat week after week for huge plays and touchdowns. He had become a liability, and they let him just last week after another poor performance in the preseason. Darren Sharper should stabilize the secondary, and keep the Saints out of at least a couple of the shootouts they always seem to get into.
Projected 2009 record: 9-7
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Key Additions: TE Kellen Winslow Jr., RB Derrick Ward, QB Josh Freeman, QB Byron Leftwich
Key Subtractions: QB Jeff Garcia, RB Warrick Dunn, LB Cato June, LB Derrick Brooks
It's the end of an era in Tampa Bay, with Derrick Brooks' tenure in Tampa ending relatively unceremoniously (by the way, if you want to call in to your local sports radio station and say something, you'll generally get positive feedback if you say your team should sign Brooks). No one was really added to replace Brooks, so Tampa Bay is looking at youngster Quincy Black to fill in the hole left by Brooks.
The departure that will probably have the greatest impact on the Buccaneers' season, though is Jeff Garcia's. The quarterback job will fall to Luke McCown, Freeman, or Leftwich, none of whom should get you excited. I like the additions of Ward and Winslow, but it's a shame that Garcia is gone, because he actually would've been a pretty good fit for those new players. This is likely going to be a tough year for the Bucs, so I say throw Freeman in there and let's see what he can do.
Projected 2009 record: 4-12
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