#5 – Will Tampa Bay take the next step?
After some pretty bad seasons this decade, including a woeful 2-14 season a couple years ago, the Bucs have slowly built their team through the draft and have improved. This offseason was no different. They signed free agent cornerback Brent Grimes in free agency, as well as J.R. Sweezy at guard, then drafted cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive end Noah Spence.
If Jameis Winston, Doug Martin, and Mike Evans can continue to be an effective trio, the NFC South is going to be much more competitive than it has in years.
#4 – Can the Saints improve their defense?
It’s been a few years since the Saints’ defense has been effective and it’s likely why they have missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, including the last two.
Cameron Jordan has emerged as their top pass rushing threat and they added defensive tackle Nick Fairly. Their top draft pick was defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, but he broke his left fibula and will miss at least a good portion of the 2016 season.
The secondary is also a big question mark, as the Saints were ranked last in points allowed last season.
The good news for them is that their offense should still be among the best, but if that defense improves, the Saints could be in the heat of at least the Wild Card race.
#3 – Will the Panthers still have an elite secondary minus Josh Norman?
It’s hard to imagine just replacing a guy who played so well at corner in 2016 with rookies. Josh Norman was named an All-Pro and just dominated everyone he played against. He signed a long-term deal with Washington and now Carolina has to figure out how to maintain the level of play in their secondary.
It does appear they are going with their draft picks at BOTH corner spots. Second round pick James Bradbury appears to have the size and strength to start in Norman’s spot and thrid round pick Daryl Worley is in line to start the other side.
The basic school of thought is Carolina’s front seven is so good that the corners don’t have to be great, but it will still be important for the rookies to grow up in a hurry.
#2 – Will Atlanta be able to improve in the right spots?
Atlanta finished 8-8 last season and they have a great offense to work with in quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Devonta Freeman and All-Pro receiver Julio Jones. The looming issue lies in their pass rush. The Falcons were dead last with only 19 sacks. If they can get more out of the defense and have Devonta Freeman follow up last season with another good one, then Atlanta will be right there in the playoff hunt.
#1 – Will the Panthers continue their dominance?
The 2015 Panthers were amazing. They finished 15-1. They were first in points scored, averaging over 30 per game. They were sixth in points allowed, averaging under 20. Cam Newton was the League MVP. Everything seemed like it was lining up for a championship until Denver spoiled the party.
The question now is, how will the Panthers respond? Kelvin Benjamin returns and could make the offense more deadly and as said above, if the rookie corners play well, anywhere from 12 to 15 wins is again possible.