Flacco: Ravens plenty motivated to repeat
Divisional breakdown: NFC South
How they’ll finish: Falcons, Buccaneers, Panthers, Saints
Best newcomer to division: Darrelle Revis. Buccaneers cornerback
Revis was the best cornerback in the NFL prior to last year’s knee injury. If he plays to that level, or even close to it, Revis will make a huge difference for the Buccaneers. Their secondary was a major weakness last season. But with the additions of Revis and free agent safety Dashon Goldson, the Buccaneers’ pass defense should be much improved.
Best team: Falcons
They were the No. 1 seed in last year’s playoffs, and their nucleus returns intact. Getting tight end Tony Gonzalez to put off retirement another season was critical. They added running back Steven Jackson to an offensive mix that already included quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, and Gonzalez. Offensively, the Falcons are stacked. They are a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Best intrigue: Cam Newton, Panthers quarterback
Newton is a gifted player, but the Panthers are looking for more consistency as he gains experience. The more help Newton gets from teammates, the better he will perform. Newton was the team’s leading rusher last season, which reflected how much the Panthers depended on his ability to make plays. New coordinator Mike Shula wants the offense to depend less on Newton’s legs, and more on his arm. But if the Panthers have another losing season, Newton’s frustration is likely to show, and head coach Ron Rivera is likely to be sent packing.
Biggest disappointment: Saints
Some think the return of Sean Payton as head coach means the Saints are returning to the playoffs. Not so fast. The Saints’ defense was horrendous in 2012, and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can’t fix it with bold talk alone. Expect the offense led by Drew Brees to continue picking apart defenses. But if the Buccaneers and Panthers both improve, the Saints could be closer to the bottom of this division than the top.
Best rookie: Star Lotulelei, Panthers defensive tackle
There was a concern regarding a heart test that Lotulelei took at the combine, but he has since been cleared medically. The Panthers believe they got a steal with the 14th pick in Lotulelei, a huge and mobile defensive tackle. Lotulelei cannot be compared to Haloti Ngata of the Ravens – yet. However, the Panthers think Lotulelei can become a Ngata-like player.