Athlon Sports is going division by division, asking and (trying to) answering the biggest question for every team in the league entering the 2015 season.
Atlanta: Can Dan Quinn build Seattle East?
The window for the Falcons is closing rapidly after 10 wins in two years led to a regime change from Mike Smith to Dan Quinn. The new staff used its first two picks and four of the seven total in the draft on the defensive line and in the secondary. Quinn has immediately tried to recreate in Atlanta what he had in Seattle with Vic Beasley playing the critical LEO position and Jalen Collins bringing size and strength to the cornerback position. Additionally, he brought in two defensive ends, two linebackers and a corner (actually from Seattle) in free agency. With a star quarterback in place, Atlanta can still win but Quinn’s defensive blueprint has to take hold quickly. There’s nowhere to go but up.
Carolina: Have the Panthers fixed their aerial issues?
The defensive front seven is nearly perfect and the offense’s ground game was among the NFL’s best last year. But the secondary and the passing game are issues. Cam Newton has some new weaponry to work with in the form of Jarrett Boykin, Ted Ginn Jr., and rookie Devin Funchess. The offense has some serious trees catching passes outside but needs to find someone who can stretch the defense. On defense, there is no star power and lots of aging legs on the back end. Someone needs to step up besides cornerback Josh Norman. Should both areas improve, a third straight division title is well within reach.
New Orleans: Can Rob Ryan fix the front seven?
Much like Atlanta, there are lots of question marks on the defensive side of the ball for New Orleans. The best pass rusher, Junior Galette, was released just a week before camp opened after multiple off-the-field issues. Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks both need to rebound in a big way. At linebacker, the Saints drafted three rookies and signed two free agents in an effort to retool the unit. Look for second-rounder Stephone Anthony to step inside and play right away while veteran Anthony Spencer and fellow rookie Hau’oli Kikaha will be asked to pressure the quarterback off the edge. This unit ranked 31st last year in total defense after ranking fourth in 2013, so the only hope NOLA has of reaching the playoffs this fall is a rebound year from Rob Ryan’s group.
Tampa Bay: Is Jameis Winston a star?
The Bucs' roster has lots of high-level young talent all over its roster but the main linchpin is the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. The biggest difference between teams that have won in the NFC South and Tampa Bay is a franchise quarterback. For Tampa Bay to compete, Jameis Winston must be capable of going toe-to-toe with Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Cam Newton. Winston has maturity issues but is extraordinarily talented and basically won every college start he made (26-1). Look for the Buccaneers to immediately compete in a division with defensive question marks with Winston now under center.