The Saints went 1-1 against the Falcons last season, but Atlanta ran away with the NFC South, winning the division by six games. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
With training camps about to begin, we take a division-by-division look at where each team stands heading into the 2013 season.
With the New Orleans Saints flailing, and the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers still tweaking their rosters, the Atlanta Falcons absolutely coasted to the NFC South title last season. Atlanta won the division by a whopping six games and needed until only Week 13 to clinch.
The road figures to be rockier in 2013, through no fault of the Falcons.
Atlanta is more than capable, on paper, of being an NFC frontrunner, but the rest of its division rivals all believe they can get to the postseason. All three might be right, too, given the key upgrades secured by the Saints, Panthers and Bucs.
What's in store for the NFC South this year?
Signed RB Steven Jackson, DE Osi Umenyiora; drafted CB Desmond Trufant, CB Robert Alford, DE Malliciah Goodman, TE Levine Toilolo
RB Michael Turner, OT Tyson Clabo, C Todd McClure, DE John Abraham, DT Vance Walker, CB Brent Grimes, CB Dunta Robinson, S Chris Hope
Where they got better: Running back. Michael Turner gave the Falcons some good years, but he clearly was running on fumes last season as he posted a career-worst 3.6 yards-per-carry average and his lowest rushing total (800) since joining Atlanta. Steven Jackson is not that much younger -- he'll be 30 this month; Turner turned 31 in February -- but he hasn't slowed down, topping 1,000 yards in 2012 for the eighth consecutive season. He adds more power and giddy-up to the Atlanta backfield, and a change of scenery might even rejuvenate the three-time Pro Bowler a bit.
Where they got worse: The offensive line. Specifically, right tackle and center. Gone from those positions, respectively, are Tyson Clabo, who missed one game over the past five seasons, and Todd McClure, a starter on the Falcons' line since 2000. Either 2012 third-rounder Lamar Holmes or Mike Johnson will nab Clabo's spot to Matt Ryan's throwing side. Clabo was a top-15 tackle in Pro Football Focus's 2012 rankings, so the bar is high. At center, the Falcons will look to Peter Konz, who's coming off an up-and-down year as a rookie guard. He is a more natural fit at center, but is he ready for the responsibilities there?
Breakout player: Desmond Trufant, CB. He or fellow rookie CB Robert Alford has to break out, really, if the Falcons are going to thrive. One of that pair, likely Trufant, will take the starting job vacated by Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. In a division with multiple high-powered offenses, the secondary will be tested.
Where they stand: The Falcons made only minor tweaks to their roster, necessitated by free agency or the salary cap. That's a sign of a team that believes it is close to winning it all. And the Falcons should believe that, after coming within a defensive stop or two of downing San Francisco in last season's NFC title game. They will not have an easy time repeating as South division champions, but the Falcons are an upper-echelon team within the conference. It's Super Bowl or bust ... again.
Signed WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Domenik Hixon, LB Chase Blackburn, CB Drayton Florence, S Mike Mitchell; drafted DT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawann Short, G Edmund Kugbila, LB A.J. Klein, RB Kenjon Barner; promoted Mike Shula to O.C.
WR Louis Murphy, DT Ron Edwards, OLB James Anderson, OLB Jason Phillips, CB Chris Gamble
Where they got better: Defensive tackle. Star Lotulelei, a player some experts had pegged as the 2013 draft's top prospect before concerns about his heart sidelined him at the combine, fell into Carolina's lap at No. 14. Don't overlook the later pickup of second-rounder Kawann Short, a versatile and active defensive tackle capable of playing multiple spots on the line. The rookies and veteran Dwan Edwards, off a career-high six sacks in 2012, make Carolina much more formidable up the gut. The linebacking corps of Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and Jon Beason should be better as a result.
Where they got worse: Outside linebacker. James Anderson and Jason Phillips are gone, and ... well ... where's the safety net here? Davis will start on the strongside in 2012, with Beason on the weakside. That's fine on paper, but Davis missed 27 games from 2009-11 and has torn his ACL three times, while Beason has played five total games the past two years. Fifth-rounder A.J. Klein and ex-Giant Chase Blackburn will provide depth at all three linebacker spots, leaving the Panthers with very little margin for error and few proven options behind their starting three.
Breakout player: Josh Norman, CB. The Panthers' secondary looks to be their Achilles heel entering 2013, but Norman could shore up the situation if he elevates his game. Despite being benched late last season, Norman is all but locked into a starting CB job, and he has the playmaking ability to make an impact.
Where they stand: The Carolina Jekylls and Hydes are one of the toughest team to peg. They started 2011 at 4-8, then finished 4-2; last season, they were 3-9, then ran off four straight wins, including one over the Falcons, to close the year. If Cam Newton finds his rhythm in, say, September as opposed to December, the offense could be a top-10 group. How well the defensive backfield performs might make or break the Panthers' chances at sticking in the division race all season long.
New Orleans Saints
Signed TE Benjamin Watson, OT Jason Smith, DE Kenyon Coleman, OLB Victor Butler (injured), CB Chris Carr, CB Keenan Lewis; drafted S Kenny Vaccaro, OT Terron Armstead, NT John Jenkins, WR Kenny Stills; hired D.C. Rob Ryan
RB Chris Ivory, WR Devery Henderson, OT Jermon Bushrod, DT Sedrick Ellis, OLB Jonathan Casillas, CB Johnny Patrick
Where they got better: The secondary. The Saints would have been hard-pressed to get worse anywhere defensively after allowing an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season. The pass D was responsible for 4,681 of that total, a number topped by only the Buccaneers (4,758). The restoration project may take more than one season, but the Saints landed a solid corner in Keenan Lewis and a potential game-changer at safety in Kenny Vaccaro. Add in some new bit players like Jim Leonhard and Chris Carr, and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan at least has a shot at slowing down opposing offenses.
Where they got worse: Offensive tackle. Jermon Bushrod's success (which landed him a lucrative contract from the Bears) was in part a product of Drew Brees' quick-strike passing approach. But Bushrod's departure still leaves the Saints down a very important man on their line. Charles Brown will be first up in trying to replace Bushrod, possibly with pressure from 2009 draft bust Jason Smith or 2013 third-round pick Terron Armstead. Brees' ability to get the ball out will help whomever winds up at LT, too, but there is no way to sugarcoat the lack of a definitive starter here.
Breakout player: Junior Galette, OLB. The native of Haiti has 9.5 sacks over the past two seasons, but just two starts. He should see the field a lot more in 2013, with the Saints transitioning to a 3-4 defense. His sack total ought to skyrocket given the natural pass-rushing ability he's shown.
Where they stand: Can we just throw last season out? From the bounty scandal to Sean Payton's suspension to the Saints' 7-9 record, it was a lost year and one hardly indicative of how this team stacks up for 2013. The offense, again, will be lethal, with Drew Brees in search of his third straight season topping 5,000 yards passing. New Orleans even could be a Super Bowl threat, provided Ryan can transform the defense from sieve to strength -- or, at least, not an embarrassment. Atlanta deserves to be the NFC South favorite, but the Saints definitely could leap frog their way back to the top.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Signed RB Brian Leonard, WR Kevin Ogletree, TE Tom Crabtree, DT Derek Landri, OLB Jonathan Casillas, S Dashon Goldson; traded for OT Gabe Carimi, CB Darrelle Revis; drafted CB Johnthan Banks, QB Mike Glennon, DT Akeem Spence, DE William Gholston
RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Dallas Clark, DE Michael Bennett, DT Roy Miller, OLB Quincey Black, CB E.J. Biggers, S Ronde Barber
Where they got better: The secondary. As mentioned above with the Saints, the Buccaneers had nowhere to go but up here after ranking dead last in the league -- the 4,758 yards they allowed last season were more than all but two Arena Football defenses coughed up over the same span of games. Tampa Bay addressed the problem even more aggressively than the Saints did, trading for Darrelle Revis, signing safety Dashon Goldson and drafting Johnthan Banks. Revis was the league's premier CB prior to tearing his ACL last season. If he's ready in time for Week 1, Revis would start with Banks or Eric Wright. (Editor's note: The secondary situation is a little uncertain now, with Friday's surprising announcement that Tampa Bay has traded Wright to the San Francisco 49ers for a conditional late-round pick in 2014. Read more here.)
Where they got worse: Defensive end. The Buccaneers had a mere 27 sacks last season, the third lowest total in the NFL. Nine of those came courtesy of Michael Bennett, who bolted for Seattle in the offseason. Without him, the Buccaneers need Da'Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn to shake off some injury woes and consistently harass opposing quarterbacks. There's not much help behind them, either, save for Daniel Te'o-Nesheim (4 sacks in 2012) and rookie William Gholston. The defensive line's inability to get to the quarterback certainly did the beleaguered secondary no favors last season.
Breakout player: Tom Crabtree, TE. The Buccaneers plucked Crabtree from Green Bay as a restricted free agent. He was a bit player in the Packers' explosive passing attack, but he projects as the Bucs' best pass-catching option at tight end. Given an opportunity, he easily could surpass incumbent Luke Stocker's 16-catch performance from last season.
Where they stand:
In spite of their defensive deficiencies and a subpar season from QB Josh Freeman (54.8 percent completion rate), the Buccaneers were 6-4 and in the thick of the playoff race last season. They lost their next three games by a total of 11 points, then finished with a 7-9 mark. Greg Schiano's second season as head coach brings with it a more hand-picked roster -- right down to backup QB Mike Glennon. Revis must stay healthy and return to pre-injury form and Freeman has to take the next step. Should both those things happen, this could be a surprise playoff team.