The NFC South just got a little tighter. The Saints improved their offense and shored up their defense. The Buccaneers had a really good of season in free agency and did a good job of finding offensive weapons in the Draft. The Panthers may have taken a step backward with its losses on the offensive line and at receiver, but they still have a dominant defense that will carry the team so Cam Newton can work magic.
To say this division could be the most exciting in the NFL is not an exaggeration and the Falcons - with health concerns taken care of for the most part - figure to be a team on the rise where a 4-12 record is not a possibility, rather an avoidance.
Mike Smith and his offensive staff have to find a rhythm again and the defense must not look like an aging retirement home. The secondary is young and will need to pick up its paces and work quickly to become a cohesive unit because there is plenty of speed to cover in this division.
Here are five questions that need to be answered before the team goes to training camp.
Is Mike Smith's job in jeopardy?
Not yet. The team finished 4-12 and Smith signed a contract extension in the off season. But if the team finishes 4-12 again and they miss the playoffs, then there may be some rumbling in the front office. Smith has been the most successful coach for this franchise. He hired the right staff and found the right components with Thomas Dimitroff to fill the roster. Smith will succeed, but he must show he can win in the post season more consistently.
What about the receiving corps?
Roddy White and Julio Jones return from injuries. The team faltered on offense with the loss of one or both receivers during the season. The loss of the two top pass catchers allowed Harry Douglas to shine as a first option. The Falcons will have to deal with the retirement of Tony Gonzalez. No matter how productive another tight end is in this offense, no player can replace his productivity over the long haul.
Is Matt Ryan an elite passer?
Not yet. Ryan will forever be linked to Joe Flacco, who was taken in the same draft class. The Falcons have had a better offense in the time Ryan has been in Atlanta. Flacco, the better defense. And as we all know, defenses win championships. The injuries to the running game, receivers and offensive line hurt Ryan and his progression last season.
Who replaces Will Weatherspoon?
The loss of Weatherspoon is not as shocking as it could have been since he has missed 12 games over the last two seasons, but he is still an important part of the defense. There is no player listed as his replacement on the depth chart. It is possible Akeem Dent will move into that role.
Can the Falcons make the playoffs?
Yes, but they will have to contend with the mainstays and the upstarts. Tampa Bay will be knocking on the door as well and the NFC South will literally be a dogfight for six spots. The Falcons will be a vastly improved and they may only win three more games this season. The fans and management will have to be patient and hope injuries do not deplete this team this season.