1. New Orleans Saints
The last two seasons have ended with tough playoff exits. This time they want it to end with another Lombardi trophy.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Their offense will continue to put up points at will, but can their defense make key stops to win games?
3. Carolina Panthers
Ron Rivera’s job could be on the line if they don’t make the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A new coach and philosophy is in place with Bruce Arians looking to either resurrect Jameis Winston’s career or find his replacement.
Head Coach: Sean Payton
Key Position: Secondary
This unit was so good two years ago that it was a bit surprising to see them take a step back last year. They were ranked 29th against the pass last year and with the defense sacking the quarterback 49 times that makes this a bit of an anomaly. Don’t expect them to be anywhere near the bottom against the pass this year.
Key Acquisitions: LB Kiko Alonso (Miami Dolphins), DT Malcolm Brown (New England Patriots), TE Jared Cook (Oakland Raiders), RB Latavius Murray (Minnesota Vikings)
Key Rookies: OL Erik McCoy
Head Coach: Dan Quinn
Key Position: Defense
Head coach Dan Quinn is taking over the play calling duties on defense and he has no choice. This unit was decimated by injuries last year, but showed signs of life for the final three games that were victories. They’re a far cry from their Super Bowl year of 2016 and the collapse that followed in that game. The Falcons might have to clinch a playoff spot for their head coach to not be on the hot seat going into next year.
Key Acquisitions: DL Allen Bailey (Kansas City Chiefs), OL James Carpenter (NY Jets), DE Adrian Clayborn (New England Patriots)
Key Rookies: OL Chris Lindstrom, OT Kaleb McGary
Head Coach: Ron Rivera
Key Position: Quarterback
They were 6-2 in the first half and then went 1-7 the rest of the way. Cam Newton wasn’t healthy and it showed. If he is back to his former MVP self, the Panthers will be competing for a playoff spot. The defense is solid and they will show some 3-4 looks during the year. If Newton falters again there will be questions about his future in Carolina along with the head coach.
Key Acquisitions: DB Tre Boston (Arizona Cardinals), WR Chris Hogan (New England Patriots), DE/LB Bruce Irvin (Atlanta Falcons), DL Gerald McCoy (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), OL Matt Paradis (Denver Broncos)
Key Rookies: DE/LB Brian Burns, OT Greg Little
Head Coach: Bruce Arians (Arizona Cardinals – 2017)
Key Position: Everything
Simply put it was a disaster last year. Statistically speaking they were the top ranked passing team in the league, but that doesn’t mean they were good at it. Bruce Arians takes over after a year retired and he will be tasked with assessing everything from the quarterback to the kicker. Jameis Winston has one more chance to prove he isn’t a bust at number one overall in 2015. Arians brought in Todd Bowles to turn around the defense and they will go with a 3-4 scheme which is a far cry from their Tampa-2 scheme of previous regimes. This will be a work in progress which Arians seems to be okay with.
Key Acquisitions: LB Shaquil Barrett (Denver Broncos), LB Deone Bucannon (Arizona Cardinals), QB Blaine Gabbert (Tennessee Titans), P Bradley Pinion (San Francisco 49ers), DL Ndamukong Suh (LA Rams)
Key Rookies: LB Devin White, CB Sean-Murphy Bunting, CB Jamel Dean, DB Mike Edwards