1. Carolina Panthers – It almost seems to easy to pick the Panthers to win this division. How can you bet against a team that’s the reigning NFC Champs and return with the reigning MVP? Cam Newton made the leap many of us have been waiting for and was a force all on his own last year. Cam finished the season with 45 total touchdowns and he will need to continue this dominance for the Panthers to repeat as division champs this year. Last year Cam was without wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and it was a blessing in disguise. Cam was able to spread the ball around and make decent players out of dumpster fires like Ted Ginn Jr. Expect former Michigan Wolverine, Devin Funchess to take over as the number one wide-out. Tight-end Greg Olson, when it’s all said and done, is the most consistent and reliable target. . . Jonathan Stewart was eleven yards short of a thousand and was better than expected. To expect anything more than eight-hundred yards out of Stewart would be lofty. Head coach Ron Rivera’s bread and butter is the defense. The Panthers could not agree on a contract with corner-back Josh Norman so he’ll be gone and there is a definite lack of support in that secondary. Roman Harper took his leadership and salt and pepper hair back to New Orleans but it’s the front seven that is still the most athletic and dominant in football. Teams will still struggle to run the ball against them, as they did last year as this defense yielded less than four yards a carry. It will be a tougher road, but this is literally a black and blue team, who can take it as well as they can dish it out.
2. Atlanta Falcons – The story here is that Atlanta actually has better talent on their roster than most of the teams they play this season. Matt Ryan wasn’t as sharp as we’re used to seeing him, but let’s just put it on learning a new system. Ryan is a bright and dedicated player, he will only get better a year into this system. The Falcons were able to run the ball last year with Davonta Freeman and the funny thing about that is he wasn’t even supposed to be the starter. Tevin Coleman had beat him out as the starter but got hurt. The running game and offensive line as a whole should get a lot better with the free agent acquisition of center Alex Mack who decided to not waste away his talents in Cleveland anymore. . .Defensively the Falcons should see some improvements. Vic Beasley struggled during the year, but that’s mostly because the defense around him was pretty shaky. Courtney Upshaw and Sean Witherspoon are some nice additions to the squad. Ra’Shede Hageman was dominant player in 2013 playing in the Big 10 conference and he needs to be more consistent with his play. Hageman plays with a chip on his shoulder and fits the mold of a Dan Quinn defense. The Falcons drafted Keanu Neal, the safety out of Florida, in the first round and that will turn out to be a nice pick for them as he plays behind one of the leagues best corners in Desmond Trufant. Atlanta has the tools to become more dominant in this division than Carolina – but their time is not now.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Okay everyone, you no longer need to hold your breath. Jameis Winston seems to have taken life at the NFL seriously and is washing away the troubled image that followed him in college (somebody tell Johnny Manziel that it is possible to shape up . . .). Tampa decided to part ways with head coach Lovie Smith, but didn’t want to shake things up too much and they promoted offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to the position. The Bucs must have all the faith in the world in Winston because they did little in the off season to upgrade this offense. Although the “little” they did was add J.R. Sweezy to an offensive line that is young and on the come up thanks to the likes of Hastings, New York product Ali Marpet who was taken in the second round of last year’s draft as a Division Three standout at guard. Doug Martin proved that when healthy he is a top five back in the league as he finished last year with over 1400 rushing yards. Vincent Jackson is still the veteran wide out on the team that generally goes un-noticed and forgotten in the league and if Mike Evans can stay healthy and produce, it may be Jackson’s last year in Tampa. The Bucs drafted corner Vernon Hargreaves in the first round and he is a cover guy, always looking to force turnovers – he should show immediate impact from week one as he’s paired up with Brent Grimes in the secondary. As long as Grimes keeps his wife off of twitter things should be okay. Hard to have a lot of faith in the back end of that secondary when the horrible Chris Conte is there and amazingly still finds himself employed in the league. The Bucs will have a losing record but fight until the final possession in a hand full of these games.
4. New Orleans Saints – Expect a lot of 35-32 losses by this team. They can sling it with the best of them, but they’re defense is just horrendous. The Saints are the NFL’s version of what a Big 12 conference team is. Sheldin Rankins, the defensive tackle out of Louisville, was a smart pick in the first round of the draft but outside of him and defensive end Cameron Jenkins, there really isn’t much to see in this front seven. Dannell Ellerbee keeps tricking people into paying him for his “athleticism” and Nick Fairley has a good motor but zero in-game focus. Drew Brees has lost a little bit of the zip on his passes but he’ll have some nice young targets to fling the rock to. Rookie Micheal Thomas and the game-breaker Brandin Cooks figure to be the one and two – but Willie Snead had a nice breakout season last year and gelled well with the veteran QB. The Saints are a great team to collect guys for your fantasy football team but to see them as a contender is just a “fantasy.”