The Saints must prove that the new additions on defense along with the presence of Gregg Williams can finally get them over the hump. My belief is that it will. If that defense is "only" marginally improved, they are a likely playoff team. For all their poor defense, they lost 6 games by a total of 18 points, and in two of those games they had missed FGs at the end, which cost them a victory. So any improvement on defense, and better play from the special teams (which they had under Hartley), should put them in position to challenge for the NFC South. That said, their schedule is daunting, and they won't have the benefit of having their starting ends for the first four weeks. The good thing is that they do have viable depth at DE, and the benefit of playing a manageable schedule for the first four weeks. They could very well walk away 3-1 going into the bye week when Will Smith and Charles Grant will return from their suspensions. I think outside of Jonathan Vilma, their linebackers are at best solid, more likely subpar. They have some young guys that they should be anxious to give a shot at cracking the starting lineup to. Guys like Jonathan Casillas, Jo Lonn Dunbar and Anthony Waters might prove more athletic in Gregg Williams' blitzing style of defense than Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita. But even with subpar backs, the team's biggest achilles heel has been their pass defense. They got to the NFC championship with Fred Thomas as a starting corner and Josh Bullocks/Jay Bellamy/Omar Stoutmire as their safeties. To take it a step further, Brian Young was their starting 3-tech. Now, they have Sedrick Ellis in his position, and have added Malcolm Jenkins, Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter (who played very well as a rookie). So, you have to think that if Williams can get this group clicking early, they can be very successful. On paper, they do look good and as though they will be a contender. Of course, the game is played on the field--a place where the Saints have found ways to underachieve the last couple of seasons (hough in their defense they were injury-riddled last year).
The Panthers must prove they can have back-to-back winning seasons, less they become the new Atlanta Falcons. In their favor, they have 21 starters returning. Of course, they have brought as many starters back in years' past and still found having success in back-to-back seasons daunting. It is up to John Fox to motivate these guys. But I think that while they have solid starting lineups, a large part of their issues are depth as it is for most teams. This past season, Carolina was pretty much injury-free. I hope they can continue to have that fate though we know in this business that is not always realistic. The other question marks are at QB. What Jake Delhomme will we get? There is the guy who can manage games for you as long as you are running the football instead of depending on him to win games. On the other hand, there is the guy who can be erratic, sometimes even when the Panthers are winning. The offensive line is stout but outside of Duke Robinson, there are some depth issues that could haunt the Panthers should one of its starting linemen go down with a significant injury. Finally, can Richard Marshall replace Ken Lucas? I believe he can and will. He's scrappy, and, to me, has been one of the better nickel cornerbacks in the league. My concern, however, is whether or not Sherrod Martin can replace Marshall. I know that John Fox will have him prepared. But I do not know if it will be enough in year one to make a seamless transition from Lucas to Marshall and from Marshall to Martin. In a league where pass happy offenses dictate running nickel coverages 60% of the game, rookie mistakes or, worse, plain poor play from Martin could hurt the Panthers chances, especially against such a tough schedule. Oh, and I did not even mention Ron Meeks who will run a similar defense to what the Panthers ran last year despite being a recent Tampa-2 disciple. How will the transition look? Remains to be seen but history has to be weighted with deference given these question marks.