1. New Orleans Saints (17.0)
Offense: QB Drew Brees will light up scoreboards again throwing to WRs Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, TE Jeremy Shockey and RB Reggie Bush. A sound O-line protects Brees and opens holes for RB Pierre Thomas and Bush. Grade: 5.0.
Defense: All-Pro FS Darren Sharper (tied for NFL-best 9 INTs) going on the PUP list due to slow recovery from microfracture knee surgery is a tough blow. But DE Will Smith (13 sacks), MLB Jonathan Vilma and CBs Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer make enough big plays to cover weaknesses. Grade: 3.5.
Special teams: Bush is exciting on punt returns. Courtney Roby excels on kick returns and coverage. K Garrett Hartley and P Thomas Morstead make a nice young tandem. Grade: 4.0.
Coaching: Sean Payton and D-coordinator Gregg Williams connect because both are creative and aggressive play callers. Grade: 4.5.
On the spot: FS Malcolm Jenkins. Former first-round pick must fill Sharper's large shoes.
Prediction: Might not return to Super Bowl, but should repeat as division champs. Record: 12-4.
2. Atlanta Falcons (15.5)
Offense: Entering third season, QB Matt Ryan should take another big step forward. It would help if WR Roddy White repeats his Pro Bowl performance and TE Tony Gonzalez, 34, doesn't start showing his age. With RB Michael Turner healthy and trimmer the run game should be a force again. The O-line is tough and durable. Grade: 4.0.
Defense: The centerpiece is Pro Bowl-caliber MLB Curtis Lofton, who will be flanked by talented rookie Sean Witherspoon. The Falcons desperately need DE John Abraham to regain dominant pass rushing skills (16.5 sacks in '08) to protect shaky secondary. Grade: 3.5.
Special teams: K Matt Bryant and P Michael Koenen get it done. Eric Weems is one of several return options. Grade: 4.0.
Coaching: Mike Smith is steady in his preparation and game-day decisions. Grade: 4.0.
On the spot: CB Dunta Robinson. Top free agent pickup must elevate porous secondary.
Prediction: Will have Saints looking over their shoulder. Record: 10-6.
3. Carolina Panthers (14.0)
Offense: RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are the NFL's best 1-2 punch. Running behind a strong O-line, they became the first duo in history to rush for 1,100 yards each in a season. They'll carry the load while new QB Matt Moore grows into job. WR Steve Smith is still a premier player, but needs help. Grade: 4.0.
Defense: Star MLB Jon Beason has moved outside to replace Thomas Davis, who is out with a knee injury. Third-year pro Dan Connor moves into Beason's old spot. Underrated CB Chris Gamble leads talented secondary. The D-line lost three starters, including Julius Peppers. Grade: 3.0.
Special teams: K John Kasay and P Jason Baker are sure-footed. Mike Goodson must prove himself on returns. Grade: 3.0.
Coaching: John Fox gets the most out of his teams. Grade: 4.0.
On the spot: DE Everett Brown. Former second-round pick must fill pass rush void.
Prediction: Panthers often surprise when underestimated. Record: 8-8.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11.5)
Offense: Second-year QB Josh Freeman gives franchise hope of a brighter future. He'll grow with a young receiving corps that includes Buffalo's Mike Williams (Riverside) and TE Kellen Winslow. The Bucs want to be a run-first team, so RB Cadillac Williams has to stay healthy and the O-line has to perform. Grade: 2.5.
Defense: The Bucs used their first two draft picks on DTs Gerald McCoy and Brian Price to shore up a line that got trampled last season. With McCoy and Price in front of him, MLB Barrett Ruud should make more tackles closer to line of scrimmage. Venerable CB Ronde Barber, 35, leads a young secondary. Grade: 3.0.
Special teams: K Connor Barth and rookie Brent Bowden have good legs. Michael Spurlock is a quality kick returner. Grade: 3.0.
Coaching: After a rough start, Raheem Morris improved game-management skills. Grade: 3.0.
On the spot: DE Stylez White. The Bucs need more than 6.5 sacks from their best pass rusher.
Prediction: Growing pains continue for one more year. Record: 4-12.