2009 NFL Preview: #11 New Orleans Saints

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Offseason Additions: Paul Spicer (DE); Darren Sharper (S); Jabari Greer (CB); Heath Evans (FB); Nick Leckey (C).

Offseason Losses: Mike McKenzie (CB); Deuce McAllister (RB); Josh Bullocks (S).

Player to Watch: Pierre Thomas, RB.
The Saints are a passing team first and foremost and considering he’ll share a workload with Reggie Bush, Thomas may not break the 1,000-yard rushing mark this season. But that doesn’t mean Thomas isn’t effective. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry last year and scored nine times on the ground. He was also proved to be a threat out of the backfield while hauling in 31 passes for 284 yards and three touchdowns. A sprained MCL has put a damper on the start of Thomas’ season (he might miss the Saints’ opener), but once he’s healthy he could become a household name this season.

Team Strength: The Saints have one of the best offensive lines in the NFC, led by left tackle Jammal Brown and right guard Jahri Evans. Brown is a mauler in the run game and gets most of the credit for the team’s success on offensive line, but Evans is New Orleans’ best all-around lineman. He’s strong, athletic and excels as a run-blocker. The rest of the line is comprised of right tackle Jon Stinchcomb, center Jonathan Goodwin and left guard Carl Nicks. As a unit, the Saints gave up a NFC-low in sacks last season with 13, which was one of the reasons quarterback Drew Brees had so much success. (On top of the fact that Brees makes quick decisions from the pocket.)

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2009 NFL Preview: #12 Atlanta Falcons

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Offseason Additions: Tony Gonzalez (TE); Mike Peterson (LB); Brian Williams (CB); Tye Hill (CB); Brett Romberg (C).

Offseason Losses: Michael Boley (LB); Keith Brooking (LB); Domonique Foxworth (CB); Lawyer Milloy (S); Grady Jackson (DT).

Player to Watch: Tony Gonzalez, TE.
It was clear after the Falcons made their remarkable playoff run in 2008 that the only thing missing from their potent offense was a pass-catching tight end that young signal caller Matt Ryan could use to work the middle of the field. Enter future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. While he’ll be expected to block more in Atlanta than he did in KC, if the preseason was any indication of how Gonzo will perform in his new surroundings, he’ll see plenty of opportunities to make plays in the passing game. Ryan often looked (and found) Gonzo on third downs this preseason and the pair has already formed chemistry despite ‘09 being their first year together in the same offense.

Team Strength: The Falcons have one of the most complete offenses in the league and can burn defenses in a variety of ways. As long as the 376 carries he received in ’09 didn’t wear him out, Michael Turner will again be the backbone of Atlanta’s offense. Even after trading for Gonzalez and re-signing playmaker Roddy White to a lucrative contract extension, the Falcons will remain a run-first team and won’t concern themselves with the number of carries Turner receives. When “The Burner” does need a rest, highlight reel speedster Jerious Norwood is the perfect compliment to Turner’s bruising style. While a sophomore slump is a concern, Ryan poured in hours of work this offseason to try and improve his footwork. He will also be better at reading defenses now that he has a full year of starting experience under his belt and has two excellent weapons at his disposal in White and Gonzalez. Speaking of White, the fifth-year player has emerged as a top 5 receiver and will lead the Falcons in receptions barring injury. No. 2 wideout Michael Jenkins has developed into a solid run-blocker and gives Ryan a tall target on third downs and in the red zone, as does veteran Brian Finneran.

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2009 NFL Preview: #13 Chicago Bears

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Offseason Additions: Jay Cutler (QB); Orlando Pace (OT); Kevin Shaffer (OT); Pisa Tinoisamoa (LB); Josh Bullocks (S); Frank Omiyale (OT).

Offseason Losses: Mike Brown (S); Terrence Metcalf (G); John St. Clair (OT); Fred Miller (OT); Rex Grossman (QB).

Player to Watch: Jay Cutler, QB.
If any other player were listed here, Bear fans would petition to have this site taken down (and they might anyway since Da Bears aren’t No. 1 in these rankings). Cutler is the reason why the fine folks in Chicago are talking Super Bowl and why other media publications are predicting the Bears to win the NFC North this season. The strong-armed Cutler complained his way out of Denver this offseason and now has the task of winning with what some pundits deem a putrid receiving corps. But what those same pundits fail to grasp is that tight end Greg Olsen is a solid option in the passing game and Cutler should work well with former Vandy teammate Earl Bennett (whose next catch in the NFL will also be his first). Running back Matt Forte is a great receiving option out of the backfield and returner-turned-receiver Devin Hester can stretch a defense with his speed. But the Bears’ success this season rests squarely on Cutler’s shoulders.

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2009 NFL Preview: #14 Minnesota Vikings

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Offseason Additions: Brett Favre (QB); Glenn Holt (WR/released in preseason); Karl Paymah (CB).

Offseason Losses: Matt Birk (C); Napoleon Harris (LB); Darren Sharper (S); Kenechi Udeze (DE); Robert Ferguson (WR); Marcus Johnson (OT).

Player to Watch: Brett Favre, QB.
Who else? Head coach Brad Childress didn’t mind shoving quarterbacks Sage Rosenfels and Tarvaris Jackson to the backburner in order to acquire the 39-year-old Favre, who the Vikings hope is the missing ingredient for a Super Bowl run. Before an arm injury derailed his production, Favre was playing at a MVP-like level last year for the Jets. When he finally made up his mind to sign with Minnesota in mid August, he managed to avoid all of training camp. Not that he needed the extra reps. Favre is already well-versed in Childress’s West Coast Offense and shouldn’t have any trouble leading the Vikings in Week 1 despite missing all of camp. But the key to his and Minnesota’s success is for Brett to stay healthy for an entire season. If he can’t, all the trouble Childress went through this summer in trying to sign Favre would have gone to waste.

Team Strength: Led by Adrian Peterson and a dominating left side of the offensive line, the Vikings will have success running the football this year. Favre brings another element to the passing game, so defenses won’t be able to stack the box in hopes of containing Peterson and even if they do, AP proved last year that he could still gain positive yards. Tackle Bryant “Mount” McKinie and guard Steve Hutchinson form the best left side in football and will once again be leaned on to pave the way for AP and backup Chester Taylor. Minnesota does have some question marks along the offensive line, most notably at center where John Sullivan takes over for All-Pro Matt Birk (who signed with Baltimore in the offseason), and at right tackle where rookie Phil Loadholt will get a chance to start in his first year. But Loadholt is a mauler and should provide an upgrade over last year’s shaky rotation of Ryan Cook and Artis Hicks, and Sullivan has potential.

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2009 NFL Preview: #15 Carolina Panthers

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Offseason Additions: Kevin Kaesviharn (S/cut in preseason).

Offseason Losses: D.J. Hackett (WR); Ken Lucas (CB); Jeremy Bridges (G); Geoff Hangartner (C).

Player to Watch: Julius Peppers, DE.
Peppers had a rather tumultuous offseason. In March, he stated that he wouldn’t re-sign with the Panthers and was seeking a team that would employ him as an outside linebacker. But Carolina put a stop to that notion by placing the franchise tag on the former first round pick and then proceeded (and failed) to sign him to a long-term extension. Now Peppers is playing on a one-year deal despite not wanting to be in Carolina, although he insists that there’s no bad blood between him and the organization. It’ll be interesting to see if Peppers’ attitude changes if the Panthers take a nosedive after winning the division last year.

Team Strength: The Panthers finished third in the league in rushing last year and will once again feature one of the best ground attacks in football this season. Led by DeAngelo Williams, who had a breakout campaign in 2008 while totaling 20 touchdowns, and former first round pick Jonathan Stewart, Carolina will rely on the run to open things up for quarterback Jake Delhomme and the passing game. Williams is an outstanding downhill runner and when healthy, Stewart can tire out a defense with his bruising running style. Both runners are perfect fits for the zone-blocking scheme that Carolina uses. Left tackle Jordan Gross is one of the best run-blockers in the league, while left guard Travelle Wharton is technically sound and benefits from playing alongside Gross. Center Ryan Kalil and right tackle Jeff Otah continue to develop on what is quickly becoming one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. Stewart and right guard Keydrick Vincent’s health are the only question marks.

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