By Pete Prisco | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
The New Orleans Saints will play without their head coach in 2012, which is a far bigger loss than many think.
Sean Payton is a lot of things, but he's also one of the best offensive minds in the game and his game-day mastery will be missed. He also offered checks and balances for quarterback Drew Brees, but who will now?
Payton's year-long suspension for his role in "Bounty-gate" has to affect the Saints -- even if they insist it doesn't.
That's why I think the Saints, who won the division last season, will take a step back.
The Atlanta Falcons, and their new-look offense, will be the team to beat in the NFC South this season. The Falcons have been to the playoffs in three of Mike Smith's four seasons, but have not won a playoff game. That will change this season.
I just don't think you can minimize Payton's absence. Carolina and Tampa Bay look to be a year away. This looks like a two-team race.
Post-camp outlook: Under Smith, the Falcons have been a fast team on a fast track that played slow. In the preseason, they played fast. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter unleashed a more up-tempo offense that should help quarterback Matt Ryan and make Julio Jones a star. The new defense, led by coordinator Mike Nolan, will be much more aggressive. Keep an eye on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. "Star" is about to go next to his name.
Best that could happen: They win the Super Bowl. For that to become a reality, they have to get better coverage in the back end and the offensive line needs to take a step forward. That means left tackle Sam Baker.
Worst that could happen: They miss the playoffs. That would be a disaster for Smith and Ryan, who are already feeling the heat. If the move to play faster on both sides of the ball doesn't work, what's the next step?
Last word: I like the idea of allowing Ryan to chuck it around more. They seemed to be a plodding offense with Michael Turner running the football more than he should. Now Ryan can spread it out and throw to Jones and Roddy White. Look for a lot more exotic looks on defense, which will help the pass rush. Don't sleep on this team.
Post-camp outlook: It's just weird seeing this team without Payton. The Saints are built in his mold: aggressive and arrogant. But that's OK. It works. Interim coach Joe Vitt is a lot like that, but he is also serving a six-game suspension. That means offensive line coach Aaron Kromer runs the ship to start. Or does Brees? The offense should be explosive again with Brees under center. The defense took a major step back last season, but new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has a chance to change that if he can get an improved pass rush. I see a lot of shootouts.
Best that could happen: They win the Super Bowl. They weren't far off last season, even though the defense struggled. It's on young defenders like Patrick Robinson and Cameron Jordan to help change that. The only worry on offense is not having Payton around.
Worst that could happen: They don't make the playoffs. That would mean the Payton's absence is felt a lot more than many expect, which I think it will be.
Last word: They will still light up the scoreboard with ease with that passing game. Brees is magnificent, but Payton was a big part of what he did. That will be missed. The key, though, might be how well the defense improves. If Jordan or Will Smith or somebody can emerge as a major factor in the pass rush, they could be good. If they are, all the bounty talk, the supensions and even the loss of Payton for a year might be offset.
Post-camp outlook: We know Cam Newton was special as a rookie. Now the question is whether he can do it again. He wasn't great in the preseason, but that really doesn't matter. He will be good again. The Panthers offense could be even better. He knows it better. The defense was a disaster last year, but coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott have been able to implement their entire system, which includes a lot of coverage looks. They didn't get that chance last season. The addition of first-round pick Luke Kuechly will also help that side of the ball.
Best that could happen: They are a wild card. That would mean seeing the defense morph into a top-10 unit while Newton again puts up gaudy numbers.
Worst that could happen: They go 4-12. If the defense doesn't make strides in a division with good offense, that's a possibility. There is some uncertainty in the secondary, which is a concern.
Last word: I see this as a 2013 team. I know it's trendy to say they are ready to take the big step forward, but I see too many questions. Among them: Can Newton grow? Can the pass rush improve? Can the inside players on defense hold up against the run? There are too many questions for the Panthers in 2012. Give general manager Marty Hurney one more year and the Panthers will be ready to compete for a division title.
Post-camp outlook: New coach Greg Schiano brings a discipline to the Bucs that was badly needed. He reminds me of Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville with all his rigid rules. That should help. Players need and crave that. The Bucs spent big this spring in free agency to bring in receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and corner Eric Wright. Those three should make them better. Quarterback Josh Freeman lost 20 pounds, but wasn't accurate in the preseason. He has to be better than he was.
Best that could happen: They get to 8-8. Freeman must bounce back from a subpar 2011 for that to be a reality. Losing guard Davin Joseph this summer for the season won't help.
Worst that could happen: They win three games, which would mean they struggle again on defense, putting too much on Freeman, which happened in 2011. He forced too much. The defense has to be improved.
Last word: One free-agency class doesn't solve the problems. But it's a step in the right direction. I like what Schiano brings in terms of discipline. But I see the Bucs as a team that is looking to next season before making any playoff noise.